haw-week-badgeCurrently, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and unmanageable stress affect one in six British workers each year. Recent research published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine magazine found that the proportion of people taking time off for mild to moderate mental health issues went up from 26 percent to 38 percent between 2002 and 2013.

It is certainly worrying to see such a large increase in mental health related absence. While the health of individuals is of paramount importance, it can also have a staggering effect on business productivity. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that stress-related sickness can cost an estimated £4 billion annually.

To combat this trend, forward-thinking organisations are taking steps to build stronger support systems for their employees. Recognising that small alterations to the working environment, management skills and HR policies can make a big impact is invaluable in addressing mental health in the workplace.

So what steps should be considered in creating an environment to support good mental health?

Create a culture of openness

Developing a ‘we can talk’ culture around employee wellbeing and making time to listen is extremely important. Time to Talk Day, which took place on 5th February, was an excellent initiative which encouraged individuals and employers to take five minutes to have a conversation about mental health. Organisations should look to sustain the culture of openness encouraged by this initiative to ensure that stressed or anxious employees feel comfortable approaching their employers.

Even in the best cases, however, it is natural for employees to feel some reluctance about raising their mental health issues with a line manager or member of the HR team. Therefore, ensuring monitoring is in place for any potential red flags and encouraging line managers to have regular and open one-to-one conversations with these individuals can be invaluable. After all, when employers are more receptive and understanding, employees will feel more valued, cared for and have confidence that their problems can be accommodated for in the workplace.

Work closely with GPs and occupational health teams

In many cases, it is important to link up with GPs and/or occupational health departments, particularly when dealing with employees with severe mental health problems. By teaming up with external agencies, HR teams are able to support line managers addressing sensitive situations with the best information and professional resources. Occupational Health teams and GPs have the most professional experience and knowledge of protecting employee health, can offer invaluable assistance to internal teams, and ensure the working environment is kept as safe, healthy and productive as possible.

We also recommend that HR teams keep the employee involved every step of the way. At Right Management Workplace Wellness we use the phrase ‘nothing about me, without me’ as a guide for approaching all decisions affecting individual support and health. Keeping the individual involved ensures there is a clear grounding of trust between the employer and employee, which provides the strongest foundation for productive solutions.

Consider other workplace factors

Focusing on individual cases is useful, but shouldn’t be the only approach to creating a healthy workplace. Taking a step back to ask, “What are we doing that encourages good or bad health at work?” is also important. We have found that even slight adjustments to the set up or structure of the working environment can help individuals be more productive and feel more focused.

For example, an individual dealing with anxieties outside of their work life might benefit from working from home or working more flexible hours. As these needs can be very personal and vary from person to person, employees must be at the centre of any discussions and should feel comfortable and confident making suggestions regarding what they feel would have the most positive impact on their health.

Organisations can also benefit from optimising Employee Assistant Programmes (EAP) which provide support to individuals dealing with personal problems that can have a profound impact on their ability to perform well at work. Our EAP offers support to over half a million UK workers and includes 24-hour online and telephone access to a range of health and wellbeing services. Through these programmes, organisations can ensure that appropriate support is available as early as possible, avoiding the consequences of long term unaddressed issues and their costs.

In our recent research, The Flux Report, we found that three quarters of HR directors believe employee wellness is something that will be formally measured and reported on by 2018. Providing a psychologically-healthy workplace, delivering proven, demonstracbly effective and cost-efficient solutions that support mental wellness and address psychological pressure should be a priority for all forward-thinking organisations.

In an improving economic hiring climate characterised by severe skills shortages and fierce competition for the best talent, businesses that take every step possible to support their workforce and demonstrate they care will be able to ensure a sustainable competitive edge.