Poor mental health is one of the biggest issues faced by employers today; contributing to about 70 million lost working days per year as a result from stress and other mental health issues. These issues leave employers facing increased staff turnover, higher rates of absence, and decreased productivity in their teams. Considering organisations like the Mental Foundation (https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/) and Mind (https://www.mind.org.uk/) have been around since the mid-late 1940s, we can see that it’s taken quite some time for conversations in this space to gain traction. Nonetheless, great strides have been made in bringing important focus to mental health in these last couple of decades, and it seems things are only going to get better with the advent of the ISO 45003 in Psychological Health and Safety at Work. This global standard, due for publication in Summer 2021, will provide even more guidance for employers and employees for managing psychological health and safety at work.
The ISO is exciting for two reasons: There will be a global framework in place to align practices across different countries, legal systems and cultures; but, it also signals a different era, one that recognises mental health as an important health standard in its own right - one as important as physical health and deemed necessary to govern through standardised practices. Some countries, however, are a little further along this journey. I remember that in one of my first HR roles back in 2013/2014, I had to prepare what was called a ‘psychosocial’ risk assessment for the BENELUX region - a legal requirement for employers to complete and keep track of different stress contributing factors every 6 months. Since then more research has been shared on the topic, one report being the Eurofound and EU-OSHA “Psychosocial risks in Europe: Prevalence and strategies for prevention, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg (2014)”, which highlighted some of the challenges faced and prevention strategies for managing mental health in the workplace. The evidence raised in the report suggests that psychosocial issues are best addressed through a structured process and high levels of employee engagement in order to instigate positive changes to the working environment. , For comparison, it was only in August this year that the Health and Safety Executive, UK first posted a mental health risk assessment.
However, why is the management of mental health important?
The business case is real for managing mental health at work: Proper control of mental health issues helps to foster positive work environments and increased resilience which in turn this leads to better productivity and happier employees, not to mention higher engagement and better employer branding, making the job of attracting great talent easier. However, it has only been in the last few years that the comparison has been drawn to managing mental health/stress (at least in the work context) to that of other health and safety standards. Now, approaching mental health as you would other health and safety compliance issues could potentially be a contested topic: On the one hand, do you as an employer get viewed as ‘ticking a box’ if the requirement is for example, the completion of a risk assessment form? Or is this an opportunity to engage with employees more meaningfully to help create the workplace of the future and support employees to thrive?
It’s no secret that the attention on mental health & wellbeing has been growing over the last few years, and in my view the new ISO is a welcome addition to an already growing global trend to bring mental health and overall wellbeing to the forefront of organisational effectiveness. The draft standards already provide guidance on what constitutes psychological hazards at work, ways to address these in order to improve the working conditions, and detailing the type of interventions that could prove effective. However, in addition to this, I think that effective employee engagement and communication to embed new practices as well as the upskilling of managers to spot the signs and take steps in addressing issues will be key components of any mental health prevention strategy; of course, it’s not about becoming a mental health expert, instead it’s about being able to provide support when something appears wrong or unusual.
With this in mind, what steps can you take as an employer in this area?
1. Bring the conversation into the workplace – whether through a comms plan, an informative talk, or a wellbeing activity.
2. Prepare your own mental health risk assessments - There are free templates that you can use available on the internet. Here is one provided by HSE. *(https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/risk-assessment.htm)
3. Review internal policies – do they support the direction you’re taking as an employer? Do your competencies and behaviours reflect those practices you want your managers to exhibit?
4. Integrate, update and re-purpose already existing practices – Make the conversation part of the performance review cycle for example and remind employees that sick days are for mental health issues too!
5. Introduce Mental Health First Aiders – it is an investment, but if you can do this, it’s a great initiative to provide support to employees.
6. Encourage employees to take time off - Provide links or access to a meditation app such as Headspace and encourage employees to take the time to use it – lunchtime break anyone? Or simply ensure that your team members book holiday to rest and recuperate.
I would love to hear more about any initiatives you are taking in the workspace or things you have seen work well.