How should SMEs manage mental health at work?
With approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, we are all becoming more and more aware of our duty to manage not just physical but mental health, and our responsibility for our own wellbeing.
Mental health in itself can be very positive, investing in the mental wellbeing of our employees can lead to huge cultural changes, and help us meet our legal and moral obligations in business.
Mental ill health, however, can be damaging to individuals and to companies – if it’s not managed correctly – if the conversation and support is missing. So how should SME’s, with smaller budgets than larger companies, and less infrastructure dedicated to occupational health, manage the issue of mental health at work?
- Understanding the signs and symptoms
If someone breaks their leg, we can see a physical problem, and we can often relate to the pain and understand the difficulties the situation may put the person in. Often when someone is suffering from mental ill health – it can be harder to spot, more complex to understand and harder to relate to or empathise with. Understanding the most common mental health conditions, and how they impact people day to day is a great first step to helping your team. Learning how to best support people and give them the best advice of where to go for additional support is key. No one is expecting a line manager, or even CEO, to be able to understand the ins and outs of every mental health condition. But having a general understanding of the most common conditions, and the best way to help support someone who may be struggling in the workplace, is a good foundation.
People in the workplace still worry about the repercussions of talking to a manager about a mental health worry. People often feel it may go against them or even cost them their job. So many workers may not come forward immediately even though they need support. Looking out for signs and symptoms may give you the opportunity to start a very crucial conversation.
- Communication, support and advice
Communication, and in particular listening is one of the crucial factors in helping support someone suffering from mental ill health. No manager is expected to act as a medical professional or psychiatrist but people do often need a safe, non-judgemental ear to listen to them at a time of need. Often this may be in the work place. Firstly, employees need to know who to go to, whether that be a member of the occupational health team, mental health first aider, HR, health and safety department, or their line manager. SMEs are less likely to have large occupational health resources or Employee Assistance Programmes, which may mean employees are more likely to approach a manager. Employees must be made aware that any communication will be handled sensitively and in confidence. While SMEs may have smaller budgets and resources – a listening ear costs no more than someone’s time – and in a mental health crisis it could be the difference between life and death. Training certain members of your team in mental health first aid, is a way to know that there are people there to help in the event of a crisis, as you would with physical first aid.
- Learning and training
All staff need to understand how to best manage their own mental health and wellbeing. There are some simple steps that we can all take to help with our own mental wellbeing, including:
– Reducing alcohol and/or drug intake
– Taking part in regular exercise
– Starting a new hobby, or making time for old ones
– Eating a balanced diet
– Creating a healthy balance between work and rest, including things like family time, hobbies and interests
– Getting enough sleep
– Going for a walk on breaks at work
And it’s not just our own mental health we can help with, we all have the ability to help others at work – simply by asking how someone’s weekend was and taking the time to listen, walking to their desk rather than emailing, and keeping an eye out for others.
As managers we can encourage staff to take regular breaks, ensure they take sufficient lunch breaks, allow downtime from emails, and encourage them to have a break from their screens before they sleep at night.
Training and encouraging ongoing learning amongst our staff is essential. Work related stress accounted for 45% of all working days lost to ill health in 2015/16. Can your SME afford to lose this time, or would it make better sense to invest in your staff preventatively?
There are many simple steps we can take to help reduce stressors in the work place, and to help staff learn how to better take care of their own mental wellbeing. The HSE’s new Go Home Healthy campaign has lots of information about managing mental health in the workplace. Find out more.
- The business case
Over 11 million days are lost at work a year because of stress at work. Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.
The average days lost per case for stress, depression or anxiety, which is 24 days, is far higher than for musculoskeletal disorders (16 days).
Simply put, wellbeing is good for business.
Healthy people are happier, more engaged and more productive.
Stress, anxiety and depression are the biggest cause of sickness absence in our society. Mental ill health costs UK employers an estimated £35 billion each year – broken down, that’s £10.6 billion in sickness absence, £21.2 billion in reduced productivity, and £3.1 billion in replacing staff who leave their jobs for mental health-related reasons. – MHFA England
Gary Ellis, Senior Consultant at CE Safety, offered his advice to SMEs, saying that, small and medium businesses have a lot to gain from investing in raising awareness on workplace wellbeing. Raising awareness of mental health by encouraging employers to take mental health as seriously as physical injuries helps safeguard against hidden costs.
Mental health conditions can cost businesses through employees missing days of work, unwell workers attempting to work whilst experiencing a loss in productivity. Employers can implement cost-effective strategies designed to support workers;
- Deliver a supportive leadership and management style to workers
- Introduce flexible working arrangements to suit employees in need
- Implement a management style that encourages constructive feedback, mentoring and coaching.
- Amend the recruitment and development process to ensure all management hold the skillset to perform these skills.
- The moral case
Just as with our business minded requirements to keep our workers safe, and send them home at the end of the day’s work – we have a moral obligation for their health.
Our workers have a right to feel protected at work, and to know that if they are struggling with any physical or mental health condition, they will be supported in their place of work.
The HSE says that prolonged periods of stress, including work-related stress, have an adverse effect on health, with strong links between stress and physical conditions, such as heart disease, back pain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems and psychological effects, such as anxiety and depression.
Stress can also lead to other behaviours that are harmful to health, such as drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, drug abuse or smoking.
Tackling the causes of stress before they lead to ill health can prevent harm.
- The legal case
Th main legislation when looking at mental health and the workplace is The Equality Act 2010, which repealed the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The aim of the Act is to protect disabled people and prevent disability discrimination. Under the Act a person is defined as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment or the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to perform normal day-to-day activities.
Other legislation to consider includes The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which sets out your responsibilities as an employer and shows how you can put your duty of care into practice in the workplace, The Mental Health Act 2007, The Mental Capacity Act 2005, The Human Rights Act 1998, and The Management Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.
- The case for the wider world
What we learn in our workplaces, we often replicate in our personal lives. If we can create a culture of openness and cohesion on the topic of mental health in the workplace, our employees may well take that vision home to their families and wider communities. The next generation of workers may have a very different approach to mental health than we do. It starts today, it starts with you.
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