Every July, Samaritans branches across the UK and Ireland hold local events to talk about their services as part of its “Talk to Us” initiative. This is something employers can embrace from a health and wellbeing perspective as part of helping to create an environment of openness and understanding about mental health in the workplace.
Employee health and wellbeing – helping employees to open up about mental health
Every July, Samaritans branches across the UK and Ireland hold local events to talk about the services they offer in their communities as part of the charity’s “Talk to Us” initiative. While, of course, this isn’t in itself workplace-specific, it is something employers can very much embrace and promote from a health and wellbeing perspective.
As Samaritans puts it, “whether it’s a coffee morning or bake sale, Talk to Us is one of the ways we raise awareness that we’re here – for anyone who needs someone to listen, 24/7, without judgement or pressure.”
It publishes an online list of how to find your local branch and what is happening during Talk To Us month and, naturally, promotes the initiative through social media.
For employers, engaging with and promoting this initiative is a great idea.
Cost of mental ill health
The mental health challenges facing employers are well-recognised, both the cost of mental health-related absence and the challenges managers face in terms of managing workers who may be feeling stressed, anxious or unable to cope.
Indeed, in May a survey by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health found that six out of 10 line managers felt they were not getting enough help from their organisation to support the mental wellbeing of their staff, despite this being viewed as vital in the creation of mentally healthy workplaces.
In the same month (as part of Mental Health Awareness Week that month) a survey also argued that employees are three times more likely to discuss their physical health over mental illness at work.
That poll by Mental Health First Aid England and Bauer Media Group found that 14% of 2,000 workers polled said they felt comfortable discussing their mental health worries at work, compared with 42% of workers who felt able to talk about physical conditions.
The two organisations urged employers to sign up to a workplace manifesto, which asks organisations to treat mental and physical health equally and implement the six core standards for a mentally healthy workplace as set out in the government’s Thriving at Work review.
Role of EAPs and OH
There are, of course, practical things employers can do in this area, such as put in place access to occupational health provision and an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Workplaces can be made more flexible and management structures flatter and more consensual to try and give workers a greater sense of control and autonomy, a key part of the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards. Managers and employees alike can be given training in resilience and emotional intelligence to help manage mental and emotional health.
It is also about taking a long, hard look at your organisational culture and environment, especially hours, workload, demands and management approaches. It is about developing a culture that enables and even encourages conversation and openness around these areas, as well as the modelling of “good” behaviours (such as leaving work on time, email etiquette and not being bullying or aggressive) from the top downwards.
Mental health crises
This all can help with managing stress and anxiety generally. But if someone is spiralling into thoughts of self-harm or suicide that can of course be a very serious matter, and one where professional intervention is needed, and fast.
As Andrew Kinder, professional head of mental health services at Optima Health argues, suicide may always be an individual tragedy, but it can be compounded, or even caused by, poor management practices, inappropriate behaviours by colleagues and poorly implemented organisational changes.
“Employers and occupational health practitioners therefore have a vital role to play in both preventing suicide, assessing whether someone may be suicidal and responding to mental health crises” he suggests.
“Managers and HR need to know what to do in an emergency, if for example a member of the team is distressed and is threatening to harm himself or herself or is potentially a danger to others. This could be as simple as phoning for an ambulance or arranging for them to be taken to a local Accident and Emergency department. But a protocol does need to be in place.
“For less immediately urgent cases, an occupational health referral or contacting the EAP can be helpful, as then the employee can be assessed and decisions made from there. ‘Mental health first aiders’ may be able to provide some support, but they should not be relied upon in lieu of more specialist support or provision,” he adds.
Andrew Kinder has co-authored a book with Dr Shaun Davis, global director of safety, health, wellbeing and sustainability at Royal Mail Group, called Positive Male Mind: Overcoming Mental Health Problems and which is published by Lid Publishing.