Mental Health Awareness Week: How meaningful conversations fuel healthier employees

This post originally appeared on a HR technology website and can be seen here.

Mental Health Awareness Week has shone a spotlight on the mental wellbeing of people at work. An individual’s work can have a drastic impact on their mental health. On average, we spend a third of our lives at work. So, employers have a duty to ensure that employees are healthy - both physically and mentally. This is both from a moral standpoint and a practical one.

Studies have linked poor employee wellbeing with increased time off and lower productivity. A TfL study recently discovered that workers with a BMI of over 30 (clinically obese) took three more sick days off compared to those of normal weight. A NHS study discovered that workers who smoked were twice as likely to take time off work. Almost 13% of all sick days are taken due to mental health issues and an estimated 300,000 people leave their jobs because of their mental health.

Organisations are typically already investing in physical wellbeing programmes - whether the more traditional approach of subsidised gym memberships or physical wellbeing innovations, like StepJockey and Feel Good.

Now businesses are considering employee mental health as well. Last year, over 30 businesses including Greggs, Savill and Capgemini, signed a pledge from mental health charity Time to Change as part of World Mental Health Day. In doing so, they made a strategic commitment to improve the mental wellbeing of their employees.

Improving mental wellbeing needs open communication

Improving mental wellbeing at work can extend beyond the usual mental health programmes. Usually, a mental health programme will require an employee to actively seek help. However, informal conversations between a manager and employee, or between peers, can help improve mental wellbeing in the day-to-day.

There needs to be a culture of openness and trust in an organisation for this approach to work. If an employee feels they can talk to their manager or colleagues about anything, they are more likely to mention when they are feeling low or stressed. Having regular, meaningful conversations plays a large role. Managers need to understand that looking out for their team’s mental health is an important part of supporting their teams - particularly in high stress workplaces

Mental health links to career development

Mental wellbeing can link to how appreciated or challenged someone feels in their daily work. An employee who feels valued and who can identify clear career growth is likely to be more satisfied in their role compared to a colleague who doesn’t. Studies have shown that meaningful work and job satisfaction contributes to better mental health. In order to provide employees with meaningful work and opportunities for growth, employers must first recognise and understand what ‘meaningful work’ looks like to each individual.

Remember managers’ mental health too

Of course, it doesn’t all have to fall to management. Fostering a culture of development and learning can encourage employees to connect with their peers for support as well. Many high achievers have an informal ‘personal board’ of people who they draw on for support. This is a select group of colleagues, mentors, and perhaps their manager or boss, that a person can ask for career advice. Having a group of people to advise someone can take the pressure off managers. Managers’ mental health is important as well!

Honest conversations prevent burn-out

Burn-out can also be a concern. Whilst it’s good to encourage employees to take on stretch assignments and further development, you should be aware of giving them too much. Having open dialogue between management and teams helps prevent this. Make it easy for people to explain when they’re feeling overwhelmed - without any judgement or fear of reprisals.

In our experience, some employees might feel like they cannot work on themselves or their development during work hours. Giving people permission to invest in their personal growth and development can help remove those fears and lead to the positive outcomes associated with greater learning and development. 21% of employees state they’re more likely to remain in a role that increases their development, for example. Allowing people to balance their workload with development can also prevent burn-out.

Take a holistic approach to mental health at work

Mental health has become a big priority for many organisations - but mental health programmes can only go so far. There needs to be a more holistic approach that doesn’t just cure people when they present with signs of stress, depression or anxiety.

Taking care of an entire team’s welfare involves constant dialogue. Employers must understand how fulfilled employees are feeling. They must know what drives employees and what meaningful work looks like to different people.

Ultimately, the mental health of employees boils down to communication between individuals and their managers, mentors, and colleagues.

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