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Body Image

29th May 2019

Last week, 13-19 May, was the Mental Health Foundation’s “Mental Health Awareness Week”. Did you take the opportunity to encourage your colleagues, employees and your organisation as a whole to get involved in helping to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing?

Supporting employee mental health and wellbeing

Last week, 13-19 May, was the Mental Health Foundation’s “Mental Health Awareness Week”. The annual awareness-raising initiative this year focused on the theme of “body image”, with organisations and individuals being encouraged to run fundraising and awareness-raising events or simply to buy and wear special green ribbon pins during the week.

The body image theme is, of course, an important one and something that, in our social media-led age, it is valuable for employers to be tackling, especially in the context of workplace bullying or “fat shaming” or even the risk of "fat discrimination".

But mental health generally remains a pressing concern for many employers, with days off work for stress or mental illness having now overtaken musculo-skeletal injuries and costing employers an estimated £2.4bn a year.

Managers struggle to respond

It is also clear managers and employers often struggle to know how to respond. For example, a recent survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and publication Management Today concluded that six out of 10 managers did not feel they were receiving enough help from their organisation to support the mental wellbeing of their staff. The two bodies have published a “white paper” to support managers and organisations in doing this.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Employees can often feel reluctant to open up or talk about mental health concerns for fear of being perceived as “weak” or “not coping” and therefore that speaking out may have a negative effect on their career or progression.

Yet, while managing and supporting an employee with stress, anxiety or mental ill health is never easy, there is a lot proactive employers can do to help.

First, look at your environment and culture. Is your management culture or the demands and expectations being put on employees creating an environment that, whether inadvertently or not, exacerbates, or even causes, anxiety, stress or mental ill health?

Creating a more consensual (often flatter) management environment, perhaps by looking at options such as flexible working, ensuring senior managers are modelling good work-life balance practices and creating a more mental health-friendly, transparent working environment can all help. The Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards can be a good starting point here.

Second, recognise there are practical interventions and support you can put in place. Offering managers resilience training and/or training on how to hold “difficult” conversations can help. Similarly, training on how to listen better or how to become more “emotionally intelligent” can be positive.

Within this, it is also worth recognising the links between exercise and both mental and physical health. So, just as it is a good idea in terms of physical health for your organisation to be encouraging employees to become more active, so creating this environment can have mental health benefits, too.

This, in turn, may help in terms of addressing some of the mental health issues that can be associated with obesity and, indeed, feed into the Mental Health Foundation’s body image theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Value and role of EAPs

Third, offering access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can be invaluable. An EAP can, of course, provide individual, confidential counselling and support as well as access to more specialised support, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

More widely, an EAP can also be a useful expert best practice resource for managers. It can offer advice on how to approach and tackle these issues in a supportive, sympathetic and positive way that is going to be beneficial both to the individual as well as to the wider organisation.

Finally, especially for more complex cases, providing access to occupational health can often make a positive difference, both in terms of hands-on support but also for providing guidance on whether a case needs to be referred on to more specialised services.

As Optima Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Lucy Wright explains: “Managing stress, anxiety and mental ill health is difficult for employers. Employers cannot be expected to wrap their employees in cotton wool – jobs and tasks need to get done, deadlines need to be met, after all. Indeed, some pressure can be good for us; it is often rising to challenges that helps us to reach our full potential – and to be proud of this fact – within the workplace.

Dr Lucy Wright

“On top of this, there is much about modern life that is inherently stressful – money worries, urban living, commuting, family and caring concerns and so forth. Yet, at the same time, employers can make the working environment less stressful and proactively support those employees who may not be coping, who are struggling with demands or pressures.

“This can be both in terms of practical interventions – such as EAPs and training – and also in terms of looking more broadly at their working culture and environment. And this can only be a good thing in the long run,” she adds.