Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash 

£45billion a year!!!!

That’s how much poor mental health is costing employers according to a report last year by Deloitte. So surely it should feel refreshing to see Mental Health Awareness Week being embraced by so many businesses. Last week my social media was awash with positivity. I read about businesses providing outdoor activities, mental health first aid and places where colleagues could chat if they needed to. If so much effort is being invested in helping workforces across the country, why do I feel a bit cynical?

So, to prove myself wrong I conducted a LinkedIn poll asking if people thought businesses actually care about staff members’ mental health or if they’re jumping on a bandwagon. Unfortunately for businesses I am not the only cynic with almost three quarters of those participating thinking that businesses are using it as a tick box exercise.

I know LinkedIn polls aren’t scientific but combine that response with the fact that the cost to businesses is £6billion more than it was in 2016 and it’s not a pretty picture. For all of the efforts businesses are making to improve wellbeing for staff, something is not working and if you want to stop staff mental ill health getting to crisis point prevention is better than cure.

Do you have a problem with staff wellbeing and mental health?

Have you really looked into whether you have a costly problem with mental wellbeing before you jumped to the solution? How would you know to solve the problem unless you looked into it properly? If you want to proactively help your colleagues in a targeted way, then look for the clues. The data is there in your business if you want to look for it.

  • Look at your staff turnover… is it high? High staff turnover can be an indication of issues in the company or a particular department. Are you doing exit interviews with staff when they leave and are you asking them crucial questions about the reason why they left? Include questions about stress levels and team working practices and make it independent and anonymous if necessary. In reality, understanding if you have a problem shouldn’t be left until people leave so if that staff turnover is high, you need investigate where the problems are straight away.
  • How long it is taking to fill those vacancies? This will paint a picture of the reputation your business has as a place to work. This can be backed up by looking at your rating on somewhere like Glassdoor or recruitment sites like Total Jobs or indeed. The content on these websites can be dismissed as disgruntled employees who have an axe to grind but is that always the case? Is there a grain of truth in some of these reviews? If there’s a pattern to what they are saying, then there may be a problem.
  • Look at sickness levels. According to research conducted by Beneden Health, UK businesses are losing 40 million working days through poor mental health. Staggering, isn’t it? The workers surveyed stated that increased workload, financial concerns and workplace culture were the top three reasons given as causes for mental health deteriorating in the workplace. All things a business can proactively deal with.

‘Always on’ needs to be turned off

The Deloitte report highlights the inability of employees to disconnect from work because of access to technology and there being an ‘always on’ culture. This is combined with workers feeling that they must work when not well. Over the last 12 months this will have been heightened because many people’s homes will have become an extension of the corporate office. The 30-minute train journey will have been replaced with a little extra time on that project because you don’t have to leave for work.

Here are things you can do to stop your workforce burning out.

  • Stop people working excessive hours right now!!!!! The World Health Organisation published a study this week that suggests working 55 hours or more leaves you with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Not everyone can work at a high rate all the time. Yes, there are deadlines to meet, and every business has those but if you’re noticing an increase in the number of emails sent late at night and people in the office when you leave then you need to question if that’s the right thing for you and your business. Most people need a life outside of work. They need to see family and friends. They need to look after their own family, and they need to be able to leave work at the door. Working 10-to-16-hour days is not a badge of honour.
  • Are your targets and workload expectations realistic? Targets are great and keep us focussed but setting unrealistic targets for your staff will leave them stressed out and exhausted. If a colleague is constantly trying to hit an unobtainable target it will undermine their performance and confidence. Make it achievable to them personally – if a person works three days a week don’t set them targets that a person who works five days a week would do. Also don’t keep piling on workload and just expecting you staff members to get on with it. You are setting people up to fail.
  • Stop meetings for meetings sake. A culture of excessive meetings can be overwhelming and counterproductive. If your teams are sat in meetings all day, then they don’t have time to do their work with the knock-on effect being excessive working hours. Also look at the way your meetings structured and take a leaf out of Google’s book. Keep it focused and relevant. Maybe you could also look at dedicating one day a week to a ‘non-meeting day ‘so people can focus on workload.
  • Limit the number of emails sent out of business hours. Actually, stop emails from going out after business hours if you can. The queasy feeling you get when you open your emails to a dozen requests from someone, sent at 8pm the night before is unnecessary. The same applies for coming back from a week’s holiday to 1200 emails (not an exaggeration – I know people who this has happened to). It means the recipient has to plough through those emails for the important and urgent work before they can tackle their own ‘to-do’ list. More pressure.
  • Avoid an accidental manager culture. Promote colleagues into manager roles without the proper development at your peril.  There’s a huge difference between doing the job and then doing the job whilst looking after a team of people with mixed abilities and work styles. It’s stressful for those that are well supported but worse for those who are left to their own devices. It is also really stressful to be managed by an accidental manager who doesn’t know how to manage you or ends up micromanaging you. It could have a detrimental impact on performance as well as mental health.
  • Make it pay! If after all of this, you can’t avoid the pace and need to work those hours to hit those targets then ensure your teams are remunerated properly for it. Hard work needs to be reflected in salary, holidays and flexibility. A Marketing Manager on £35,000 a year who works 12-hour days is just making minimum wage on an hourly rate.

Where you can start.

From the ground up.

Staff surveys have their place, but they are a snapshot of how someone is feeling that day. It’s time to listen to your staff. Bring together colleagues from across all of the business. Make sure they are representative of your workforce at every level. Enable workers to be honest about their experiences of the business culture when it comes stress and mental health. Dedicate time and budget to getting this right and you will get your workforce to develop a practical mental well-being plan for the business. For every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

One size does not fit all

To provide targeted approaches analyse your workforce. If your workforce is predominantly younger, they are a more vulnerable category according to Deloitte’s report so your approach may be different to that of a largely female workforce.

Speaking of women, we go through a lot of life events that can cause mental ill health. On any given day in your business there will be a woman are dealing with pregnancy, periods, endometriosis, and menopause. Being open to talking about some of the issues that affect women will help in the longer term.

Get experts in

By experts I don’t mean someone to do yoga at lunch on a Tuesday or someone to teach colleagues on mindfulness (although they are nice to have). Bring experts in to analyse and develop your culture so as to reduce stress, anxiety and emotional distress. You could assemble a team of HR experts culture experts, psychotherapists and communications experts to assess how you’re doing, how to change and how to communicate it to colleagues effectively.

Reflect on your own leadership style

How are you subtly signalling to your staff members what is expected of them? It’s time to lead by example. An open-door policy doesn’t just mean people can come to you it means you can go to them. Be part of conversation about mental health in your organisation. Get out there and listen to your people. Also check your own expectations and working behaviours.

Stay in your lane Eimear. No. Mental health at work is all of our business

Stay in your lane I hear you cry. Well it is my lane as a member of the full-time workforce for the last 25 years. It is for all of us to look at and understand. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of businesses are well meaning and that the content for World Mental Health Day came from a good place. I do think that if your people are working too hard for too long, have terrible objectives and insufficient leadership then it doesn’t really matter how many mental health first aiders you have or what outdoor space you are allocating to colleagues. Painting a rosey picture on social media may just stop them from believing that change is happening too.

If you have any thoughts about ways to tackle mental ill-health at work then please comment below.