We need organisations to create an ethos where mental health is on the agenda

With a study reporting that almost half of occupational health referrals are now for mental health, the priority is obvious

How do we keep our people well? The workplace has become an unrecognisable setting as we have been compelled to divide our workforce throughout the pandemic. Work-related stress, anxiety and depression have increased significantly as we have been isolated and overwhelmed with increased workloads and diminishing mental health supports.

Until recently office desks were slowly becoming occupied again but there remains a division in our mental wellbeing. Our psychological distresses have been highlighted in a recent study. The Brave New Era study, by Laya Healthcare, was a large study among Irish employees and employers in the workplace, and highlights the urgent need by employers to address the mental health issues and concerns of employees.

"Investing in mental wellbeing is no longer an option for employers, it's a necessity," says Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer and founder of Cognate Health.

“The Brave New Era research shows the risk that employers will take in derailing the health of their business if they do not put the mental health and wellbeing of employees at the forefront. That is not to say it has to be a costly investment.

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“Stress and mental health conditions as a cause of sickness absence had been increasing pre-Covid-19, but since the pandemic there is a wave of mental health difficulties coming through. Employers need to make it acceptable to talk about it and ensure that employees feel supported. The most important thing for employers is to normalise mental health and always ask, don’t assume,” says Prof Gallagher.

Mental health support

According to the study, 45 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds are planning to change jobs in the coming year, with one third actively looking for an employer who prioritises mental health support in the workplace. It suggests that putting mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of business improves employees’ overall health, lowers the likelihood of mental ill-health developing, boosts morale, and it becomes a better place to work as it enhances the work environment.

It comes with a direct benefit to the employer also as well-defined wellbeing supports are linked to higher productivity, greater staff retention and increased financial returns.

“For too long, employers have focused heavily on the individual,” says Prof Gallagher. “My advice is to go back to the start and put in place measures which will prevent the problem from even occurring. Stress comes in many forms, and is not a one-size-fits-all, but employers need to be active to fully address employees’ ongoing needs and wants.”

Prof Gallagher recognises that organisations should have psychosocial risk-prevention and management systems in place at the following levels.

Level 1: Primary promotion and prevention. These are strategies aimed at preventing psychosocial risk occurring and are aimed at promoting the wellbeing of the entire workforce. As a result everyone stands to benefit.

Level 2: Secondary prevention measures are concerned with early detection and management of stress and psychological problems, and improving a worker’s ability to manage stressful conditions more effectively by increasing their awareness, knowledge skills and coping mechanisms.

Level 3: Tertiary prevention measures refers to actions to manage and rehabilitate employees with existing mental health-related problems to minimise potential harm.

“While it is important to provide support to employees who experience mental health problems in the workplace, the best way to improve the overall health of the workforce is to prevent and manage psychosocial risk factors in the first place. Unfortunately many employers begin at level two and level three interventions and often do not complete level one,” says Prof Gallagher.

Hazards

By completing psychosocial risk assessments and implementing control measures, employers are looking at the hazards and the structure that employees work within. Employers need to ask themselves, what are the hazards in my workplace? What are the preventative measures that can identify how we prevent stress, mental health and other problems developing?

“As stress has multiple causes which may be work-related, non-work-related, or a combination of both,” says Prof Gallagher, “prevention of workplace stress and mental health issues requires a systematic approach to the identification and management of risk factors in the workplace.

"There are several tools that companies can use to complete psychosocial risk assessments including the Work Positive tool or the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire.

“Regardless of which tool is used they tend to follow the same format – identify the hazards and those at risk, evaluate and prioritise the risks, decide on the preventive action and control measures, and monitor and review the outcome.

“Whichever tool you adopt it is most important to encourage engagement with employees when performing the risk assessment and deciding on control measures, and have an implementation plan and a communication plan to monitor it, review it and adapt it on a regular basis. These are people-led changes so it is important to have employees buy-in at every juncture.”

Stigma

With the study reporting that almost half (46 per cent) of occupational health referrals are now for mental health, the priority is obvious.

“When it comes to mental health, and largely as a result of the stigma associated with it, employers tend to draw back rather than lean in,” says Prof Gallagher.

“They tend to assume and not act. It is essential that employers strive to normalise the conversation around mental health and to make it easy to have mental health conversations in the workplace. Employees must feel comfortable in raising mental health concerns at an early stage.

“This is made all too clear in the results of the Brave New Era study that showed that 59 per cent of employers and 41 per cent of employees feel that there is still a stigma about mental health in the workplace. This figure gets even higher in industries like manufacturing.”

Shifting the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace means adjusting the culture of the working environment to actively be leaders in creating a better environment of support, such as encouraging conversation, openness, respect and support from the top down. Supporting mentors, managers and team leads to signpost internal assistance and resources inspires an inclusive and supportive environment.

"Business leaders in some cases are similar to elite sportspeople who did not admit mental health difficulties as historically this would mean looking weak to an opponent," says Prof Gallagher. "Now you see elite sportspeople in tennis, golf, gymnastics and other sportspeople, such as Naomi Osaka or Simone Biles, speaking out about their mental health battles, a move that would have been unusual for current athletes only five years ago.

“To see them and many others come out in this way is very positive. It normalises the conversation about mental health. Leaders in organisations are not dissimilar to elite athletes so we need to see a leadership style that supports open dialogue. We need to see organisations create an ethos where mental health is on the agenda.”