Steve’s Blog: Workplace Mental Health – Words and Deeds

Lip service:  An idiom meaning ‘giving approval or support insincerely’

 (Concise Oxford Dictionary)

It’s unworthy I know, but I doubt that I am alone in occasionally being rather cynical about advertising messages.

The promotions that bring out the worst in me are those where the advertiser keeps telling the viewer how much they “care” about their customers.  Of course some really do, but for others the truth might be very different to the messages delivered.  Indeed my personal rule of thumb is that the more a company goes-on about how much they care, the less they probably do.

And sadly the same is true in so many workplaces.  Many organisations spend a huge amount of time promoting wellbeing packages, but not all are entirely dedicated to delivering on that commitment.  This may be particularly true in the area of workplace mental health.

Because mental health remains a really difficult thing to gauge and resolve for employers.  Official figures from Public Health England tell us that around 1 in 6 people of working age have a diagnosable mental health condition.  Yet few employees would openly admit to such an issue, and I suspect that even fewer co-workers would want to publically tell others that they have concerns about a colleague’s mental wellbeing.

The UK’s reluctance to engage with this issue owes much to our historic legacy.  The way the nation has treated those with poor mental health in the past – and the language which many of us grew up with – has been far from inclusive, or even remotely acceptable.  As a result workers will generally not seek to draw attention to poor mental health in themselves or others, and it will take many years before the cultural journey towards openly engaging with such issues is finally complete.

Action is needed sooner

But poor mental health is something that really needs to be tackled now.

According to HSE statistics the UK lost 15.4 million working days as a result of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2017/18.  So this is an issue which is not only really bad news for the individual and his/her family, but increasingly for employers and the UK economy too.

So what can employers practically do?

In 2017 “The Stevenson/ Farmer review of mental health and employers” made some useful recommendations.  The report suggested that all organisations are capable of implementing the following mental health core standards quickly:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

I’m sure that many organisations have since delivered on these mental health core standards.  The problem is that this may not be enough.

For it’s quite possible to tick many items off the above listing without really getting to the heart (or in this case the mind) of the matter.  And that’s the problem.  The words are meaningless without the substance of actions.  As the old saying goes;

“I hear your words, and I feel your insincerity”

To tackle this issue the UK workplace needs more than lip-service and good intentions.  What is needed are words and deeds.

Going further still 

This is why I firmly believe that the optional “enhanced standards” suggested in the above document should be included as the base line for all UK employers to deliver.  The enhanced standards are:

  • Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting
  • Demonstrate accountability
  • Improve the disclosure process
  • Ensure provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help

For only by demonstrating accountability will most workplaces be forced to change their culture at anything more than a snail’s pace.

Poor workplace mental wellbeing was always going to be a tough problem to solve, particularly for smaller employers that don’t perhaps have the luxury of scale and resources.  Yet virtually all organisations can improve on what they are already doing.  It is also significant that there is an increasing range of cost-effective tools becoming available (particularly web and App based) which will help organisations of all sizes tackle this issue, whilst also providing some genuine and much-needed support to their workers.

I would therefore urge all employers to consider whether they have made sufficient progress towards all the standards recommended by the Stevenson/ Farmer review.  A good place to start would be to revisit everything that has been done to date.  As part of this review its worth checking that those sincere sounding words that were used to support the original initiatives have been matched by actions.

And, when doing so, it’s probably a good idea to reflect on the wise words of former US President John F Kennedy; “Sincerity is always subject to proof”.

Steve Herbert is Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits