How to start supporting mental health in the workplace [a beginners guide for employers]

Written by Anna Bishop
Dec 15, 2021

Anna is a Training Product Manager at Red Cross Training responsible for the development and review of our training products.

When the phrase ‘mental health’ is used, people often think of it in relation to mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety.

But in reality, we all have mental health that, like our physical health, has ups and downs and, therefore, needs looking after.

Our mental health can be significantly impacted by our working life, as people spend 50% of their total waking hours on average working.

Since our job is one of the biggest parts of our lives, it's important that when we’re at work, we are healthy, happy, and feel supported by our employers.

Mental health at work can impact an individual’s home life and vice versa, so it is important to look at your employees and colleagues as individuals, each with their own life stressors and experiences that may impact on the way they feel and respond to challenges.

As an employer, it’s important to recognise that mental health support at work isn’t just about supporting employees who have disclosed an existing mental health diagnosis. Instead, you have a vital role in supporting all staff, and promoting good mental health and wellbeing in your workplace, enabling everyone to thrive in a safe and supportive environment.

This is probably not new information, and as an employer you’ve likely come across situations where mental health support has been needed at work before. Perhaps you’re very aware of your responsibility, but simply don’t know where to begin.

You’re not alone. A study by Mind found that 56% of employers said they would like to offer more mental health support at work, but don't feel they have the right training or guidance.

In this introductory guide, we talk you through the basics of supporting mental health in the workplace - from why it’s important, to practical steps you can take to better support your employees.

What do we mean by 'mental health'?

People routinely think about their physical health, from what they eat, to the exercise they do to stay fit and healthy. However, people tend to be less likely to put the same thought into their mental health.

Mental health is often perceived as being a topic for those that are struggling or have been diagnosed with a condition, such as anxiety or depression. However, mental health is much like physical health. To maintain good mental health it needs to be considered and worked on as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Many people struggle with their mental health at some point in their lifetime. Rather than trying to define the struggle with a diagnosis it is useful for us to consider mental health as a spectrum or line that individuals move back and forth along as they travel through life and its ups and downs. This line extends from no distress to high distress.

The extent of the shift along this line will be impacted by many factors including:

  • Underlying mental health problems.
  • Physical health.
  • Past experiences.
  • Current stressors.
  • The amount of support that’s available.
  • The individual’s level of resilience.

If faced with a stressful or challenging situation the response is not always predictable, there is no ‘right way’ to feel.

There are a lot of stressors that can result in us experiencing symptoms associated with mental health problems. It is easy to make assumptions about somebody’s overall mental health based on the signs and symptoms you can see at the time.

It is important to remember that everyone responds differently to challenges, what triggers a high level of distress in one person may not phase another. Even symptoms that are routinely associated with more pronounced mental health problems, such as hallucinations, could be caused by other factors such as a reaction to medication or even extreme tiredness.

Some mental health problems are temporary and some are more persistent. Even if somebody has disclosed they have an ongoing mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t automatically mean they are struggling with it at the time you are helping them, for instance their condition may be managed and their reaction or response to a stressful situation was not impacted by their underlying condition at all.

Mental health and ill health is an extremely complex field of work, requiring years of training and experience. Our role in the workplace is not to diagnose a mental health problem but simply to offer support when needed by focusing on trying to understand what they might need, find helpful and where further support can be accessed if required.

We need to avoid trying to look at a person’s overall mental health and engage with what emotions and reactions are present at the time we are trying to support them.

 

Mental health support at work: why it's important

Mind has found that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, making it very likely that you will come across someone struggling with their mental health at work. And as poor mental health doesn’t discriminate, it can affect anybody.

There is often a perceived stigma attached to mental health problems which may result in people hiding their difficulties and being reluctant to tell family, friends or work colleagues they are struggling. It may stop people from seeking help and make them reluctant to seek treatment and support because of concerns about what others will think of them.

By promoting a workplace culture where mental health is not a taboo subject, but instead something that people speak openly about and feel comfortable asking for help and support with, will mean you are better able to recognise when someone may be struggling. It also means you may be more confident in responding to mental health challenges, and identifying the right resources to help.

Over the last few years, there has been an increased focus on mental health support at work, with reports such as the 2017 Stephenson Farmer ‘thriving at work’ review. This government commissioned report helped shape core management standards that the Health and Safety Executive believe all employers, regardless of size, should have in place.

Whilst having a mental health strategy may seem like a relatively new concept for businesses, employers have had a legal responsibility for their employees wellbeing for many years. Regardless of whether work is causing a mental health issue or aggravating one, employers have a legal responsibility to help their employees by measuring the risk to them (physically/mentally) and taking steps to reduce the risk as far as reasonably practicable.

By taking action to remove or reduce stressors, you can help prevent people becoming ill and avoid those with an existing mental health problem becoming less able to control their illness. While this isn’t always practical and individuals still need to be able to do the job they were employed to do, little changes can help reduce the risk to individuals mental health significantly.

 

Benefits of supporting mental health in the workplace

Beyond your legal duty, however, there are a number of benefits to effectively supporting mental health in the workplace:

● A happy, healthy workforce makes for better work: employees with good wellbeing who feel supported are more likely to be productive, creative and loyal.

● Good mental health means fewer absences. Mental health problems are the leading cause of long-term sickness absence - when employees are properly supported, this naturally decreases.

● When employees can openly talk about mental health in the workplace, stigma is reduced. This leads to a better understanding as a whole, and often means people are willing to seek support much earlier.

Leading by example can be a powerful tool when tackling stigma in the workplace, as a leader it is important to recognise when you may be struggling yourself and seek help and support when needed.

Find out how to better support staff mental health in our free download: Talking to employees about their mental health: your guide to starting the conversation.

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Signs an employee may be struggling with their mental health

There may be times when we need to offer mental health support at work following a particular event or situation, such as helping someone experiencing an increased level of distress following a car accident. These situations are usually relatively easy to identify as there is a trigger that has resulted in an emotional response. When this happens people tend to move through several phases including shock, realisation, acknowledgement and usually to a point when they adapt.

For example, if you had a car accident on the way to work you will probably initially feel quite shocked, a bit shaky, perhaps unable to think straight or take in what has happened. There will be a stage of realisation. This can be an emotional stage as you start to process what has actually happened. Finally, there will be acknowledgment and adaptation, where you recognise what has happened and start to look at the practicalities of sorting the car out, getting home etc. For some, they will move back and forth through these phases even making longer term adaptations such as avoiding that particular road, while for others the reaction might be short lived.

In some instances you may not have a specific trigger to highlight when someone needs additional support, but instead you may notice changes in their behaviour or their reactions and responses to situations that could indicate they are struggling.

For many, there is no defining point at which they start to struggle but instead they may experience a build up of pressures/stressors that slowly move them to a higher level of distress.

Often, the signs that an employee is experiencing mental ill-health might be more obvious to those around them, rather than themselves. As an employer there may be indicators that someone may be struggling such as:

● An increase in unexplained absences and sick leave (or on the contrary, an increase in longer working hours).

● Unusual changes to performance, such as indecisiveness, or out of character errors when completing simple tasks.

● Poor time management, such as frequently missing deadlines, and not getting things done.

● Conflict with other employees or management, such as being short-tempered or confrontational.

● Increased irritability, anxiousness, tearfulness, or erratic behaviour.

One of the most common indicators that someone might be struggling is a general change in their usual behaviour. If an employee is acting differently, or their reactions to challenges seem out of character, this could be an indicator that they may be struggling with their mental health and you may need to offer some help or support.

There are a host of other indicators we may recognise in ourselves, but may be more difficult to identify in others, especially if you do not know them well. Whilst there are many mental health problems you may need to support in the workplace, stress related ill health is probably one of the most common.

Take our stress quiz to help you identify if someone in your team may be struggling.

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How to better support employee mental health

Supporting Mental health in the workplace should not be about simply knowing how to react when faced with a mental health problem. It starts much earlier than this, with businesses trying to create a supportive culture where mental health is considered in the work we do and the processes we have, to try to reduce the likelihood of our work negatively impacting employees’ mental health.

Having a mental health strategy can help embed good practices into the workplace by outlining opportunities to support mental health, such as including mental health workplace training, but also by making mental health problems something people are comfortable talking to you and others about without judgement.

Talking about mental health can be uncomfortable for many people, our guide ‘talking to employees about their mental health' includes several tips to help you confidently have these conversations.

Although we are trying to reduce the risk of poor mental health in the workplace, it is inevitable that there will be instances where someone's mental health struggles and they may need additional help or support.

In our normal day to day lives situations that are stressful, upsetting or challenging have to be dealt with. Sometimes the support needed is for yourself or you may need to provide support to others who are upset about something that has happened to them. This is known as psychosocial support.

One of the first steps to helping someone is recognising they are struggling and may need help. Whilst some people may approach and ask for help, others may not. We can’t force someone to accept help or listen but by talking to them and by actively listening to what they are saying, we may be able to give them the resources and information they need to help themselves.


Powerful emotions

Powerful emotions are behind some of the reactions that we may find most difficult, both in ourselves and in other people. Anger, distress, depression and suicidal behaviour are examples of powerful emotions. They are still a normal reaction to an abnormal situation but can be hard for us to understand and deal with.

When we’re distressed we don’t necessarily think clearly, we may not hear what is being said, our priorities may be illogical to someone else. We may need some support before we can concentrate on what we need.

Some mental health problems may result in powerful emotions or responses that are less predictable, especially if they have not been diagnosed or are not being managed properly. Although you need to provide some level of mental health support for all of your employees, you’re not expected to be an expert, or provide any medical advice. Sometimes, an employee may require additional support that you’re not qualified to give. This isn’t a failure, but part of acknowledging the amount of support you can offer.

The British Red Cross uses a framework, CALMER, to help focus your response when dealing with emotionally challenging situations.

Consider - safety, needs and risks.
Consider the potential risks to yourself and the people you are helping. You also need to consider people’s unique needs and wishes and identify what causes them stress.

Acknowledge - the situation and how you/people are feeling.
Acknowledgement will help calm their brain, enabling them to calm themselves and regain the capacity to think and to listen, often relieving built up anxiety.

Listen - actively and with empathy.
Listen with empathy to the person you’re helping. Active listening involves noticing, feeling and imagining, i.e. getting a sense of the whole person, or just their words.

Manage - the situation as it changes, promoting dignity and respect.
Be aware of changes in yourself and anyone you are helping in what is possibly an evolving situation, you will need to adapt to manage the effects of any changes.

Ensure you promote dignity, respect and privacy as this can help reduce or remove additional stress.

Enable by facilitating choice and connection.
Enable decision making by providing relevant information and facilitating choice, yours as well as those you are supporting.

Resource Through information and liaison
Resource them and yourself by signposting to further support and remembering your own needs.

Getting started

We appreciate that while you may understand the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace, you might not know how to approach employees when they are experiencing difficulties. This is why we put together a free guide for employers who need support with talking openly about mental health with their employees, to help you start the conversation in a supportive and professional way.

While properly supporting mental health in the workplace does require relevant mental health training and dedication, our free guide is a great first step to get you thinking about how to start fostering a more supportive relationship with your employees. Download your copy below.

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Topics: Mental health & wellbeing

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