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Addressing Mental Health and Wellbeing Culture

Jun 07 2018

Why is workers’ mental health and wellbeing that one area you can’t seem to improve?

It could be because you’re not adopting the right approach. If that’s the case, you’re not alone.

217 million days of work are lost each year due to issues related to mental illness and substance abuse.

While there are factors affecting employees that are out of our control (personal trauma etc) workplace stress and anxiety is a major contributor.

We need to make some drastic changes to properly address the subject. Not only will businesses save money but creating positive working environments can help employees become the best version of themselves.

How to identify the correct ways to start making positive changes is a discussion we recently had with Professor Tim Marsh. A Chartered Psychologist, Tim is considered a world authority on the subjects of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.  Building on a 20-year track record of improving culture and engagement around health, safety and well-being in organisations, Tim has recently co-founded Anker & Marsh, with motivational and behavioural safety speaker Jason Anker.  The business specialises in improving health and safety cultures for organisations.

Here’s what Tim had to say on the subject, emphasising how businesses can look to their culture and attitudes towards better workers’ welfare to create healthier working environments.

VS: What are business’ biggest employee welfare failings?

Tim: While many businesses are beginning to take mental health at work more seriously, we still have a way to go. One of the largest areas we neglect is our workplace culture.

Some businesses see employee wellbeing as a box-ticking exercise. Focus remains on pursuing rapid growth; short-term profit is at the top of the list while workers’ welfare is at the bottom.

The result can be a toxic culture where productivity and profit pushes people’s health and happiness to the side. For many organisations though they’re just missing an excellent win:win opportunity because positive, alert, engaged workers means sustainability.

VS: Why should we be taking mental health at work more seriously?

Tim: Death by suicide is on the rise: more than 4,800 suicides were registered in England in 2015.

Last year in the UK, 137 people were killed at work. While worker suicides aren’t officially monitored, no doubt a portion of that number belongs to employees who have taken their own lives.

How we treat employees absolutely has an impact on their wellbeing. For example, in 2007 a technician working for Renault committed suicide owing to the intense pressure he was under to design a new model of Laguna within a short time-frame.  He explained this in his suicide letter:

“This has nothing to do with you. I can’t go on. This job is too much for me.”

The responsibility to make workplaces better for employees’ mental health rests with business leaders. Those who are igniting positive changes are often taking a holistic point of view and often lived experience, as opposed to solely focussing on the business benefits.

VS: How can we build healthier business cultures?

Tim: Having good intentions is not enough. You need to take a holistic approach. Rather than concentrating on the problems mental health issues cause in the workplace, managers should focus on the physical, personal, social and emotional effects to alleviate issues at their roots. That way, employees’ health becomes a priority and fixes become sustainable. Spotting an employee who is struggling early and organising help is reactive priority one. Making sure we don’t add to existing issues pro-active priority one. (Especially since studies show that ‘good work is good for you’ so can actually help with pre-existing issues.

For example, a supervisor might say, “I need this job completing safely but by Friday.” Productivity takes precedence over employees’ wellbeing and people are more likely to cut corners under this mentality.

Rather, we should be saying, “I need this job completing by Friday, but safely.” It’s a shift in our attitudes that encourages employees to use more time and resources to give employee wellbeing the attention It needs.

Business owners can support managers by providing training in softer skills, feedback or even spotting mental health issues amongst the workforce. So when new policies are rolled out, staff have the skills needed to support employees properly.

Wellbeing needs to be implemented from the bottom up as well as the top down. It needs to be part of the continual feedback and appraisal process with targets and measures to ensure the business is kept on track.

VS: What exactly can businesses do to improve the status quo?

Tim: There are no quick fixes. It requires systemic change, long-term commitment and relevant training throughout the business.

Staffing mental health first aiders is a fantastic way to support employees. They can do small things – like swapping desks with an employee suffering from anxiety so they can sit somewhere quieter – to improve employees’ mental health dramatically at work. Most importantly though they spend 5 seconds considering the answer to the question ‘are you alright’ rather than the traditional 0.5 of a second and generally set the tone that “it’s OK to admit that you’re not be OK”

As I mentioned, ensuring that managers and supervisors have quality training in soft skills generally also gives them the power to help those in need when they need it.

Theresa May recently revealed that 300,000 people lose their jobs because of a mental health problem. Having a just culture that is supportive, systematic and fair stops us from blaming people and instead asks us to access the internal failings of the business. All businesses have internal failings. This allows consistency, transparency and fairness resulting in continuous organisational improvement and sustainability.

VS: How can we encourage employees to ask for help?

Tim: We need to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Men, in particular, are reluctant to ask for help. They’d rather push themselves to the brink than be seen (in their minds) as weak.

Not gaining adequate support and feeling like an outcast has deadly consequences. It was recently revealed that 84 men take their own lives every week. Businesses should push an inclusive mentality and be supportive and open. That way, everyone is made to feel comfortable about issues at work that can aggravate mental health problems.

VS: Should we be treating everyone in the workforce the same?

Tim: Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking one solution works for everyone. For instance, many businesses fail when it comes to their wellness strategies because they think everyone wants autonomy and it’s a way to create a happy and engaged workforce.

In truth, some do, and some don’t. People who like routine and to be managed can become highly stressed and anxious when given too much autonomy. They like the structure in their working lives.

By understanding employees at an individual level, we can support them in finding a working style that makes them happy. Simply asking closed questions like, “Are you ok?” and being satisfied by a “yes” is not enough.  Consider the five second vs ½ second rule. Give someone five seconds of your time and you can address so much more.

Let’s say you implemented a change in the business. By posing open questions to your team about how they’re feeling because of this change you can pinpoint the exact areas that are causing stress. It gives you the knowledge to properly address such issues. Dealing with the root of the problem is always better than dealing with the consequences. As we say in safety ‘don’t buy mosquito nets … drain the swamp’.

Applying a non-discriminatory, supportive and open approach throughout the business is how you create healthier and happier working environments.

Vita Safety is collaborating with Anker & Marsh to provide consultancy around health, safety and wellbeing culture improvement. To find out more about the benefits this could bring to your organisation, get in touch by calling 0161 486 5020 or emailing [email protected].