In his latest column for the Notify blog, esteemed Health and Safety lawyer and Notify’s resident Subject Matter Expert, Tristan Meears-White, takes a look at the complex topic of Mental Health and Work and what this means for employers today.
Mental health can be a fragile thing. It’s no surprise that the conversation around mental health at work is loudening.
In what now seems like someone else’s life it was so long ago, I was forced to spend a misery-inducing year working with a partner who had been quietly moved along from another of the firm’s offices due to allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour.
During this deformis annos singulos*, I was wholly unsurprised to find out that he did his very best to live up to his reputation. I took matters to the national head of department who sympathised and encouraged me to be patient but at the end (of my wits), I finally resigned and left.
By that point, I had become so anxious about going into the office that I conjured increasingly tortured reasons to work off-site and in other offices (thank the Lord it was a national firm) and there is no doubt in hindsight, that my health was impacted.
The only silver lining to this dismal cloud occurred during a day out horse-riding with he who should not be named, designed as a team-building exercise (organised by him on the basis that he fancied himself something of a jockey). Unable to control the 21 hand Shire he had been given to ride due to his own size and after only about 400 yards of “hacking” he dismounted, furious and stormed off to his car – as he did so, the yard’s German Shepherd trotted silently up and bit him very firmly on the behind eliciting a piercing scream and a remarkable turn of pace from such a large chap.
I think I stopped laughing 3 days later.
This tale is re-told only to show that – if we are truly honest – almost all of us have had our mental health testing. Thankfully, in the years since my own brush with such an issue, the workplace has become somewhere in which awareness of the risk of mental health issues and how they might best be managed is much improved.
Employers have a central role to play in supporting employees’ wellbeing and mental health at work. More than that, they have a legal duty to manage the risk to employees’ mental health arising from their undertaking. Failure to do so leaves organisations open to potential enforcement action and more frequently, potential civil or employment claims.
But is a defensive position the best one to adopt?
Over the past 25 years, policies relating to mental health have referenced the role of employers more explicitly and with increasing frequency – does that not point to an underlying view that more pro-active management of this risk is needed?
I think the answer must be “Yes”.
For employers, it is important to raise the priority given to mental health and wellbeing and to create a culture which actively manages mental wellbeing. This could be through simple actions such as the appointment of health and wellbeing leads, training “mental health first-aiders” and setting out a clear position statement.
But how do we know if any of this is working?
Organisations need to collect relevant data so they can evaluate and monitor performance in managing mental health wellbeing, track quantifiable benefits and get buy-in around wellbeing programmes as commercially as well as morally justifiable. I may sound biased, but using a real-time reporting tool such as Notify will be of obvious use in compiling the right data!
For employees, organisations need to think about how they can be actively engaged in their own health and wellbeing and be part of strategies that promote both mental and physical wellbeing. This might include possible volunteering as a mental health champion, first-aider or helping address stigma through sharing personal stories. Employees should also be made aware of what support is available, how to access it and where or with whom they might raise a concern about a colleague.
Whilst the speed at which workplace mental wellbeing strategies are successfully implemented may vary, I think we are reaching a tipping point in the priority being given to addressing mental health issues in the workplace and the roles and responsibilities of employers, a positive move which without sounding too pompous, has benefits for employees, employers and society.
Despite these positive trends, you cannot ignore the challenges for employers in successfully implementing workplace mental health and wellbeing programmes.
These include an unwillingness to see employee mental health as a priority against other operational demands; a reactive approach to implementing mental wellbeing policies rather than focussing on prevention, a lack of understanding around how the company currently performs in this space, a poor evidence base to measure the return on investment of any programmes and a lack of best practice examples to promote improvements.
What seems clear from the research is that effective management of this area of risk has commercial benefits that go well beyond having a healthier workforce; even the most cynical of employers might conclude that such returns justify the investment.
For anyone looking to understand more about Mental Health at work from an employer perspective, check out the HSE’s recent guidelines around mental health first aid, here.
If you’d like to know more about Notify and how we can help support your mental health and wellbeing initiatives in the workplace through secure, confidential near-miss and incident reporting, sign up for a demo and we’ll be in touch!