Boosting mental health support in the workplace

An overhead shot of a group of smart-dressed people having a meeting about mental health in the workplace
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The issue of mental health in the workplace impacts staff of all ages and seniority, and is increasingly being nudged to the forefront of the global discourse. As a result, organizations of all sizes are implementing measures to help employees who are struggling.

Burnout is often cited by workers as one of the primary conditions brought on by modern working life, particularly in the tech industry. But the problem is a pan-industry one, with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm also all far too common.

According to employee mental health experts Wysa, more than a third (35%) of working 16-65-year-olds globally experience moderate to severe depression or severe anxiety symptoms. With figures this high, it comes as no surprise that businesses are encouraging staff to undertake training, such as mental health first aider (MHFA) courses, to reduce the potential for mental ill-health to take hold.

Vicki Cockman, head of client delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, says: “Investing in mental health and well-being can positively impact any workplace, boosting employee productivity and an organization’s bottom line. Having MHFAs will help reduce stigma around mental health issues and contribute to building supportive workplace cultures.”

While embedding MHFAs throughout the various teams within an organization can be hugely impactful, it represents just one small step in a long journey to fostering a workplace culture of support for mental health. Increasing awareness of the issue and encouraging staff to express themselves as they are can go a long way to changing that.

Mental health in the workplace: Proactively building support networks

Alun Baker, CEO at workplace well-being firm GoodShape – which partners with the likes of FTSE 100 companies and NHS Trusts – admits some people may still be tempted to dismiss episodes of poor mental health as merely “the blues”. 

However, he adds: “In reality though, one in four of us experience mental health problems each year, and unless those issues are acknowledged and people get appropriate support early, common problems can escalate into something much more serious.” 

GoodShape’s research also shows that despite organizations having many more employees trained up to spot signs and engage in conversations, a quarter said they had little or no understanding of such support, and 16% had never heard of the term ‘mental health first aider’. 

According to Baker, this means it’s critical for organizations to have access to independent external support. 

“By being more proactive about understanding employee well-being and removing barriers so employees can be open about their health challenges, leaders can make targeted changes for measurable improvement down the line,” he says. “It makes sense, not only for the health of our employees but our businesses too.” 

Cockman says having a network of MHFAs within an organization is just one element of what must be a more comprehensive corporate well-being strategy.

“Just as important will be good job design and having a razor-sharp focus on building a positive and inclusive working culture," she says. “Teams are at their most effective when they are psychologically safe and when everyone feels seen, heard, and valued.”

As mental health and well-being rises up the HR and boardroom agenda, ensuring people are safe and free to choose how they express themselves and their identities at work is critical. That can take in everything from background to sexuality to religion to gender to health and mental health.

Managers should “help build working environments that allow people to be authentic and share their whole self”, Cockman says. 

Mental health in the workplace: Promoting discussion

One of the most important things organizations can do to benefit staff’s mental health is to form discussion groups in which people can offer support to their peers, some experts say.

Group meetings can be moderated by trained staff, like MHFAs, and act as a resource for those in need of support. These can help break down some of the stigma that’s attached to mental health issues by normalizing the struggles so many workers share and inspiring confidence in those who are facing challenges with the knowledge that they aren’t alone.

“With it hindering people’s daily lives, affecting productivity, and leading to employee absenteeism, dedicating time and resources to proactively supporting mental health in the workplace is crucial,” says Ronni Zehavi, CEO at HR platform HiBob.

“Managers should be trained in handling mental health in the workplace as they’re most often the first people to be made aware of employees’ struggles.”

Zehavi also cites figures from Deloitte that showed poor mental health cost UK employers up to £56bn a year in 2020-21 – a 24% increase from £45bn in 2019.

Many companies have introduced other initiatives, such as paid mental health days that can be taken as needed, or educational workshops.

Caroline Griffin Pain, general counsel at digital Infrastructure company Colt Technology Services, explains how it has trained 62 employees as global mental health first aiders. She states businesses have “a duty of care to support their teams’ mental and physical well-being” and a “huge part” of this comes via training.

“Not only does training equip managers to recognize and raise concerns with sensitivity, and signpost towards areas of support, it helps change the narrative around how we talk about mental health to remove stigma and create a culture of openness,” she says.

Griffin Pain also advises companies to think about the words they use. For instance, she raises the phrase ‘committing suicide’. This implies blame, she points out, and explains how such a reference is now replaced with ‘died by suicide’ or ‘took their own life’. 

“We feel strongly that organizations like ours must continue training, educating, and holding conversations we’re not always comfortable with if we’re going to truly make a difference,” she adds.

One area for improvement still, however, could be companies reducing stigma even further. Lydia Kothmeier, of content management system platform Storyblok, suggests early intervention is critical – and that measures must come down from the top so employees know that open communication will not negatively impact their careers.

"In some industries, such as technology, there can be an old-fashioned view of mental health. Asking for help or expressing concerns about your workload can be seen as a weakness or a lack of commitment to the company. Hustle culture and 24/7 working practices are seen as a virtue at the expense of the individual well-being of employees,” she explains.

“This problem can be particularly acute in a remote workforce where people can feel isolated and compelled to work long hours or through illness. We need to do more to challenge this archaic and unhealthy view of business.”

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.