Committing to employee mental health and wellbeing: where can employers start?

Blog posts

17 May 2018

Sally WilsonSally Wilson, Senior Research Fellow

Twenty years ago, mental health in the workplace wasn’t a mainstream topic of conversation. In contrast, today, there are so many mental health campaigns and initiatives that it’s difficult to keep pace.  The sheer number of initiatives in this area and the energy and resources required to engage with them means that employers need to think carefully about which to support.

IES research suggests that employers who commit to a campaign as part of a wider approach to wellbeing do not regret their actions. Yet, with so many awareness campaigns, making a choice can be overwhelming. So where should employers start?

Benefits and limitations of awareness-raising

In principle, employers have nothing to lose by getting on board with mental health awareness initiatives. Many campaigns offer cost-free, user-friendly online resources. They also prompt the organisation of workplace events that foster open communication, encouraging colleagues to support each other.

There is recognition that initiatives need to be targeted to their intended audience. This means that, despite the volume of options, choosing a mental health campaign that will resonate with your sector is easier than ever before. In particular, there has been an emergence of campaigns aimed at men, such as Calm, noting that the rate of suicide among men under 50 remains tragically high. There is also an increasing emphasis on the importance of looking out for workmates and friends, including Mates in Mind, aimed at construction workers.

However, it’s important that campaign sign-up is backed by a genuine commitment to the issues, or staff could see the whole exercise as tokenistic. Ideally, embracing national campaigns should be part of a wider approach to supporting mental wellbeing at work involving the whole organisation - from the top to the bottom.

From the perspective of IES’ work in this area, there are multiple responsibilities that employers should consider. These include managing the risk of workplace stress, ensuring struggling employees can access support, and making adjustments, where appropriate, for workers with chronic and fluctuating mental health problems. Awareness-raising can complement and enhance organisational efforts to manage all of these but can’t substitute for practical steps such as providing training or procuring specialist support. A big budget isn’t necessarily required but a strategic, informed approach to addressing workplace wellbeing is essential.

Should employers train line managers?

So, what active steps should employers take to commit to workplace mental health initiatives in the longer term? Expert opinion suggests that training line managers might be a good place to start. The importance of line managers in employee wellbeing and health was highlighted by guidelines published in 2015 by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which were underpinned by an evidence review from IES. They were also tackled in an IES webinar which asked ‘Are Line Managers Damaging Your Employee’s Health?’.

In workplaces without traditional hierarchical structures, other options including training up Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) or supporting the development of mental health champions could be considered. These roles enable employees, regardless of seniority, to act as a trusted point of contact and, in the case of MHFA, the opportunity to gain skills to help someone developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.

Research that IES conducted for Mind showed positive outcomes of ‘Blue Light’ training for line managers in the emergency services. After a half day of face-to-face training, attendees displayed evidence of important attitudinal changes and boosted self-confidence – in particular, confidence starting conversations with people showing signs of mental health problems. Follow-up survey findings indicated that new learning was retained and used over subsequent months. IES has recently reviewed academic literature on mental health training for line managers (to be published later in 2018) and identified a need for further, higher quality research to properly understand its effects and potential return on investment.

What other routes can employers explore?

Benchmarking, which represents a ‘whole-organisation’ approach to improving organisational practice, is also gaining traction. These programmes can offer a means of measuring progress, learning from other employers and gaining public recognition for good practice. Examples include Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index and Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace. In the past, IES has seen benchmarking successfully applied in other areas such as pay, and health and safety. The availability of these schemes is an important step in the right direction.

Approach campaign involvement strategically

As with line manager training, rigorous research into the above interventions is in its early days. It can be tempting to use the lack of evidence as an excuse for inaction, but IES’ experience working with organisations across the UK tells us that employers do not regret taking action and investing resources in this area. While campaigns do not often tackle the root cause of poor mental health in the workplace, participating in events such as Mental Health Awareness Week helps to put employee wellbeing on the agenda, raising awareness, reducing stigma and providing a stimulus for further action.

As mental health becomes a growing concern, impacting health and safety, productivity and employee engagement, leading employers are turning to evidence-based interventions and campaigns so that they can best support their workforce. IES remains at the forefront of this developing landscape. Our research and work ‘on the ground’ with employers continues to analyse and identify the origins of poor mental health in the workplace and how to tackle them, giving clients a comprehensive view of ‘what works’ in supporting employee wellbeing.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.