Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at MIND.

Staff who need to take time off due to stress or mental health problems should be treated exactly the same as those who take sick leave for a physical health problem, says Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at MIND.

Wellbeing in the workplace was the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day, and it’s good to see that mental health is increasingly becoming a top priority for employers. But it is vital that the conversation surrounding workplace mental health extends far beyond the 10th October and continues to make lasting changes in society.

We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and it can fluctuate. One in three employees have experienced mental health problems at work and this is estimated to cost employers around £26bn every year. Promoting a mentally healthy environment at work needs to be on the agenda of every employer, regardless of size or sector.

Much of workplace wellbeing comes down to managing stress. Stress in itself is not a mental health problem and in small doses is not unhealthy. Different people cope with it in different ways, however, and long working hours, excessive workload and poor relationships with colleagues can all lead to unmanageable stress. This in turn can cause mental health problems or worsen existing ones.

Creating mentally healthy workplaces doesn’t necessarily require making large or expensive changes. Mind works with employers of all sizes and across a range of sectors to help them tackle the unique set of challenges they face in supporting the wellbeing of their staff. We encourage employers to put in place measures to create workspaces that support staff through a three-pronged approach: tackling the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health at work; supporting members of staff experiencing a mental health problem; and promoting wellbeing for all staff which help tackle the causes of work-related stress and poor mental health.

Offering things like regular catch ups with managers, flexible working hours and the option to work from home, can all make a huge difference. Even those that do have a cost attached – such as subsidised gym membership and Employee Assistance Programmes (confidential 24 hour phone support) – are likely to save money in the long run through increased staff engagement and productivity.

Another effective tool is a Wellness Action Plan (WAP), which is jointly drawn up by managers and staff and is used to identify what helps someone stay well at work, what might trigger poor mental health, and how best to support them. Available free from Mind’s website, these person-centred plans can facilitate constructive, supportive conversations about mental health.

Staff who need to take time off due to stress or mental health problems should be treated exactly the same as those who take sick leave for a physical health problem, such as back or neck pain. It’s also in employers’ interests to take steps to support the mental health of their staff, as those that do will find they’re rewarded in terms of more productive, happy staff who are less likely to need time off sick. Employers also need to be aware of their duty under the Equality Act to provide reasonable adjustments for any employee who discloses a disability, which can include a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, long-term effect on normal day-to-day activities.

Deciding whether or not to tell your employer and colleagues if you’re experiencing a mental health problem can be daunting. It’s important for all employers to create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about stress and mental health at work and to encourage a clear work/life balance as much as possible. There has long been a stigma around mental health, with employees fearful of speaking up in case it meant they were treated differently. A recent YouGov poll, for Business in the Community, found that of those who disclosed that they were experiencing a mental health problem at work, 15 per cent said they faced dismissal, disciplinary action or demotion.

It’s clear there is a long way to go, but we do know that things are improving. It is more and more common to find workplaces where people feel able to talk about their wellbeing and mental health. As attitudes begin to change, more companies and organisations are asking the right questions and taking the right steps to start the conversation with their employees. We can see the change; over 500 employers have signed the Time to Change organisational pledge, demonstrating their commitment to promoting staff wellbeing.

Mind is helping companies to make these changes through our Workplace Wellbeing Index, which is a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff. A range of organisations of different sizes across the public, private and third sectors, including Deloitte, Ark Conway Primary Academy, HMRC, the Environment Agency, Jaguar Land Rover and PepsiCo, have taken part because they’re committed to improving mental health in the workplace. Through the Index we are able to share the range of creative and positive initiatives to promote and support good mental health, from mindfulness sessions and staff tennis tournaments to wellness webinars and mental health champions.

HR professionals know only too well the unique organisational challenges faced when it comes to supporting the wellbeing of staff. Mind can help employers of all sizes and sectors to highlight and promote good practice, identify any gaps in provision of wellbeing initiatives and provide support to help organisations do this even better. Employers can register their interest in next year’s Index by emailing [email protected], visiting www.mind.org.uk/workplace, or through our LinkedIn page. Free advice and information on mental health at work is available for employers and staff at www.mind.org.uk/work.