Wednesday October 10th marked World Mental Health Day. As awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing continues to grow, are you doing enough to support your employees?

When highlighting the importance of mental health, many of us will automatically focus on the issue of mental illness: suffering from conditions spanning from depression or anxiety to personality disorders, psychosis and more.

It’s important to recognize that mental health, just like our physical health, is something that needs to be managed and taken care of day-to-day. Promoting mental wellbeing can help prevent many issues from escalating into illness: and as employers, we have a critical role to play in managing that process.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in our lives. (World Health Organization)

While not all mental disorders are preventable or even related to the workplace, even simple adjustments within your organization can promote wellbeing and ensure staff feel supported, confident in communicating when they have a problem, and better equipped to manage and overcome mental ill-health.

What is mental wellbeing?

The UK mental health charity, Mind, offers this definition:

Mental wellbeing describes your mental state – how you are feeling and how well you can cope with day-to-day life.

The explanation expands to indicate what a state of mental wellbeing includes:

“If you have good mental wellbeing you are able to:

  • feel relatively confident in yourself and have positive self-esteem
  • feel and express a range of emotions
  • build and maintain good relationships with others
  • feel engaged with the world around you
  • live and work productively
  • cope with the stresses of daily life
  • adapt and manage in times of change and uncertainty

Our mental wellbeing is dynamic. It can change from moment to moment, day to day, month to month, or year to year.”

In the workplace, this translates into good relationships with colleagues; the ability to perform our roles and be productive; adapting to change when it arises; engaging with our organization and its goals or objectives and more.

The case for mental wellbeing for our employees

Most of us will be familiar with the benefits by now, but it’s important to remember the sheer scale and potential impact of mental ill-health for organizations.

Mental illness and substance abuse are estimated to cost employers $225.8 billion every year, due to decreased performance resulting from absenteeism or lost productivity. The resulting economic impact is $1 trillion per year globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Flip that the other way, and research shows mental wellbeing can boost a variety of key business success factors: from productivity to innovation or creativity, levels of customer service provision, higher levels of engagement and more. Employees who are both mentally and physically healthy report higher levels of satisfaction, lower levels of absence and reduced turnover rates.

As employers, we also have a corporate responsibility to take care of our staff. A third of our lives are spent at work; the potential level of influence over our wellbeing is significant.

Reducing mental health risk factors in work

Prevention is better than a cure; when it comes to establishing a positive working environment that will promote mental wellbeing, there are some simple expectations employers should meet. Reducing these risks can help protect employees. These include:

  • Having clear health and safety policies
  • Enabling employees to access human resource support to raise concerns or grievances, ask for help, or obtain guidance and advice
  • Clear and consistent communication and management throughout the organization
  • Empowering employees to exercise control, autonomy and make decisions around their own work
  • Provision of flexible working practices
  • Clear clarification of role expectations and objectives
  • Provision of the right resources to perform roles; whether physical resources, digital, personnel, or time

This list is not exhaustive. Depending on the industry or specific role, individual employees may have a broader range of risk factors that need to be addressed. For example, those working in social care fields or doing humanitarian work are at increased risk of mental ill-health, due to the nature of their work.

Work-based stress, harassment or bullying, and a lack of work-life balance are all cited as common causes for mental health issues. Providing sufficient support systems are crucial.

Creating a healthy workplace

Instilling mental wellbeing goes beyond removing risk factors alone. There are a number of proactive things we can do as employers that can transform the working environment.

A healthy workplace can be described as one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees.

Creating healthy workplaces requires a holistic approach. When all those small, seemingly insignificant factors come together, they facilitate a positive employee experience. Consider some of the following ideas:

  • Providing visibility of organizational goals, objectives and values: these underpin a positive culture and promote a sense of inclusion and corporate citizenship among employees.
  • Provide physical health benefits: whether a gym pass, healthcare, holistic therapies, or in-house yoga and Pilates classes, the link between physical health or exercise and mental wellbeing is well-established.
  • Offer healthy snacks: eating well can promote better mental health. Chuck out the potato chips and biscuits; offering fruit, nuts/seeds and healthy cereal bars can create a healthier workplace.
  • Add a social element: help your staff nurture relationships with their colleagues outside of the workplace with social events, or in-house social groups for shared interests such as running, photography or reading.
  • Establish clear boundaries and policies for work-life balance: ensuring employees can switch off is crucial to mental wellbeing. Removing the expectation for emails to be answered out of hours, or whilst on annual leave, is a good starting point.
  • Encourage staff to take paid leave: 4 out of 10 Americans do not use all their paid vacation days. These are hugely valuable to help staff switch off, re-energise, and come back ready to work. Ensure staff feel able to take their leave.
  • Do volunteer work: odd as it sounds, helping others is proven to make us feel better. Volunteer programs that get staff involved to help worthy causes can provide a valuable boost to wellbeing.
  • Create an in-house toolkit for mental wellbeing: this may be as simple as posting useful contact numbers for helplines and resources on your intranet, all the way through to nominating mental health ambassadors or creating a ‘buddy system’ to encourage staff to look out for one another.

The main thing we can do to support mental wellbeing is to remove the ‘taboo’ around the subject. Awareness days and internal communication that raise the topic of mental health, its importance, and how staff can take care of themselves or access support goes a long way.

Here at Interact, we celebrated World Mental Health Day with our own ‘Wellness Day’ in both our New York and Manchester offices. Staff were offered healthy snacks and could sign up for a massage, receive free nutritional and exercise assessments from a personal trainer, undertake a mindfulness session or participate in a yoga class. The idea was to raise awareness of the things we can do every day to take care of our mental and emotional wellbeing.

(Our New York team completed a mindfulness and meditation session in the office for Wellness Day.)

Feeling stressed, low, or becoming a bit anxious are experiences we all have from time-to-time; they don’t necessarily mean we’re suffering from mental illness. However, left unchecked and without investment into our wellbeing, they do risk escalating into a serious mental health issue. As employers, it’s time to step up and recognize our role – and play an active part in overcoming the stigma that continues to surround mental health.