Supporting mental health in the workplace

Jun 02, 2020
Dr Annette Clancy explains why employees’ mental health should be the organising principle for businesses in the 21st century.

20-30% of us will experience mental health issues during our lifetime. Could the quantity and quality of work have something to do with this? 

A recent study conducted in the UK shows that one-third of us are not happy about the amount of time we spend at work. More than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems. As a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness, worry and anxiety.

Employees’ mental health is affected by their roles. For example, we might expect to see mental health issues in workers who deal with trauma and violence every day, but studies also show that workplace culture, bullying, disciplinary processes, and toxic workplace relationships all contribute to deteriorating mental health.

Many businesses have policies for mental health and workplace wellness, but for those who are trying to cope with challenging workloads and suffering at the same time, policies may not be enough. Very often, people hide what they are feeling for fear they will be stigmatised or punished. Policies need to be backed up with empathetic intervention by managers who have the right combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills.
Yet, managers are rarely trained to either recognise or manage conversations with team members who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. So, what can managers do to de-stigmatise mental health issues?

1. Create an organisational culture where there is respect for people. This sounds simple, but in practice, it rarely is. Most mental health issues arise from toxic relationships, bullying, harassment or power dynamics. Changing the culture around this would go a long way in helping to eliminate some mental health issues.

2. Train all managers and team leaders in ‘soft’ skills. Help people develop the ability to listen to what is not being said and read body language so that they can pay attention to those they manage. Stress and anxiety are felt, not spoken, so managers must be attuned to how it is expressed.

3. Encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workload. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too high. Also, ensure that employees’ jobs are manageable within the time for which they are contracted. Expanding job creep is one starting place for stress in organisations. Monitoring this aspect of an organisation’s behaviour alone could impact significantly on mental health.

4. Allow staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours, as they would for other medical appointments. This proactive initiative sends an important signal that mental health is a priority in your organisation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “the state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The WHO definition provides a policy template for organisations wishing to create a culture in which the mental health of all workers is prioritised, not only those with mental health issues. It offers an interesting insight into how an organisation might be structured if mental wellbeing was the organising principle.

As mental health issues continue to increase both within and beyond the workplace, perhaps the WHO definition isn’t so far-fetched. Putting people at the centre of organisations used to be the way we did things; putting the mental health of employees at the centre of organisations may be the way we need to do things in the 21st century.

Dr Annette Clancy is Assistant Professor of Management at UCD School of Art, History and Cultural Policy.