Thursday, 12 September 2019
A happy workforce is a more productive one – and when it comes to building a culture of openness about mental health issues, SMEs can have a big advantage.
In June 2017, a web developer named Madalyn Parker sent her colleagues an email letting them know she was taking a few days off to focus on her mental health. Her company’s CEO responded by thanking Parker for helping to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health in the workplace. When Parker posted a screenshot of the reply on Twitter, it went viral, gaining over 30,000 likes in a matter of hours.
That July, then health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a £1.3bn investment in mental health services to fulfil prime minister Theresa May’s pledge to end “the burning injustice of mental health problems”. The UK is committing more resources to tackling mental health issues, but there’s still much to be done. SMEs can help build a workplace environment that’s mental-health friendly.
While small businesses may lack some of the resources of larger corporations, chief executive of Public Health England Duncan Selbie has argued that SMEs “can kick-start a revolution in helping their staff to improve their health”. By giving mental health the same attention as physical health, firms can support their employees to boost their well-being, as well as their productivity.
But where to begin? Small business owners with limited resources may be overwhelmed by the challenges and feel uncertain about their mental health strategy. But creating a mental-health-friendly office culture doesn’t need to be complicated, even if your budget is limited.
Mental health in the workplace is not a marginal problem. The Centre for Mental Health estimates the total cost to employers is nearly £26bn per year, and that one in six employees experiences depression or anxiety at any given time. Kate Parker, HR executive at Forster Communications, believes no business can afford to ignore these statistics.
“UK businesses are really starting to wake up to the fact that a person’s life doesn’t begin and end when they walk through the door,” she says.
“Employees are bringing their life into the office and vice versa. As employers, we have to accept some responsibility and look out for our employees because they’re the heart of the business.”
This idea is not universally accepted. A survey conducted by mental health charity Mind found 30% of employees wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing their mental health with their employer. Danielle Reavey, people manager at Fletchers Solicitors, acknowledges that mental health problems are still taboo for both employers and employees.
“We find people are far more comfortable speaking about physical health than mental health,” she says “There’s undoubtedly a stigma that exists when it comes to discussing mental health. This is why we’ve tried to establish an open and transparent culture where people feel they can talk about stress, anxiety or any concerns they have.”
Making your business mental-health friendly doesn’t just benefit employees alone. A 2015 study by the University of Warwick found happy workers are 12% more productive. Apart from improving your corporate reputation and office culture, a focus on well-being can have significant economic benefits.
Any successful mental-health support programme should start with the creation of a culture of openness and good communication. Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, says that, in this respect, small businesses have an advantage over larger organisations.
“One of the advantages of being a small business is you know your employees well,” she says. “Listen to your intuition and make sure you have a good relationship with them, so they know they can talk to you, or to somebody else [at work].”
“As employers, we have to accept some responsibility and look out for our employees because they’re the heart of the business”
For some businesses, the assistance of external experts is key to building a long-term culture of support. Samantha Perry, head of people at online vehicle marketplace Carwow, explains how her company benefits from the expertise of Sanctus, an organisation that calls itself the ‘world’s first mental health gym’.
“A Sanctus coach comes into the office every month,” she says. “Employees from all levels and teams in the company can book a session with the Sanctus coach to talk about a particular problem area or just use the session to ‘train’ their mental fitness. We’ve had great feedback from employees on the value of these sessions.”
Although it’s important that senior management leads by example, devising a mental-health strategy should not be enforced without consulting employees. Individual needs vary widely, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for everyone. It’s vital to get employee feedback at every stage and get staff actively involved in the design of an office culture that supports well-being.
“We prefer the carrot over the stick,” says Kate Parker. “The more we do, the more people get interested in it. As a result, they might come along to a different training session or show an interest in something and then run a session themselves. This makes our programme self-sufficient.”
Creating a mental-health-friendly workplace is not just about providing the incidental yoga lesson or mental-health sick day. Instead, office culture as a whole should support employee health. Good communication, transparency and a work-life balance can all contribute to an environment where employees feel safe and valued.
Madalyn Parker’s tweet started a debate that’s still gaining momentum. Workplace well-being is an issue that business owners can no longer ignore. Although creating a mental-health-friendly office culture may require some investment in the short run, the long-term benefits are invaluable.
Gail Kinman shows you how to create an office culture that supports mental well-being.
Approach this project like you would any other project to make your business more competitive or profitable. Always ask an expert for their input before investing in a new service.
Use your business network to share your experiences and learn from your peers in return.
No single approach is right for every business or sector. Design a programme that fits the needs of your business and employees.
If you look critically at your office culture as a whole, rather than trying to change individual employees, your mental health support programme will be more sustainable.
Make sure employees – at all levels, including senior management – actively support mental health and take part in well-being activities together.
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