Workers in Britain are taking more time off than ever due to mental health conditions including stress and anxiety, according to a recent NHS report. But employers are waking up to the importance of supporting mental wellbeing in the workplace.
“People need to enjoy the environment in which they spend most of their day – it isn’t just a case of offering free breakfast and yoga and hoping that does the trick,” says Kathryn Riley, managing director of legal recruitment company, Douglas Scott, which offers staff mental health workshops tackling stress, anxiety and insomnia, along with hypnotherapy sessions.
Creating a workplace culture that supports mental wellbeing is often about what employers choose not to do, according to Riley. “We don’t use leader boards, which are a fixture in many recruitment firms,” she says. “Instead, we incentivise through team percentage bonuses, as well as commission, so we’re collaborating instead of working against each other.”
Recent research by Canada Life shows that only 20% of workers would take time off work for a stress-related illness – equating to 5.8 million UK workers going into work when feeling mentally unwell.
“I work with many clients who feel that their mental health issues are affecting their work and their work is exacerbating their mental health,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “It’s a vicious cycle. A sense of shame around admitting to mental health issues means that rather than having an open and frank discussion with their employer, people invest a lot of energy in trying to hide their symptoms.”
To combat this, Sarah Dowzell, chief operating officer and co-founder of Birmingham-based HR software business, Natural HR, put provisions in place to support her team’s mental health from the outset, including allowing employees to recover costs for medical appointments, an employee assistance programme with access to counselling, and time off for mental health appointments with no impact on annual leave allowance.
“Categories for requesting time off are: GP, hospital, dental, counselling or mental wellbeing appointment,” says Dowzell. “It’s important to ensure employees realise it’s just as acceptable to take time off for mental health as it is to go to the dentist.”
Hannah Meredith, health and wellbeing adviser at MVF Global, says normalising workplace conversations about mental illness help tackle the stigma. During a series of events focusing on mental wellbeing that the firm ran earlier this year, Meredith says people from within the company spoke openly about their experience of mental health problems.
Riley agrees: “Great workplace culture comes from the top, so it’s really important that business owners and management teams lead by example and approach health and wellbeing as an essential business expenditure, not a nice-to-have, and don’t run mental health initiatives alongside poor practices, such as bullying or unsupportive line management.”
Clare Hamilton, who runs Cherry Tree Vets and animal hospital Hamilton Specialist Referrals, says actively supporting mental health is paramount within her profession, with research showing vets are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
The business spends about £3,000-£4,000 on staff social events and £500-£700 per staff member on health insurance per year. Staff get five weeks’ annual leave, including bank holidays and an extra day off on their birthday.
“Good physical health is a requirement for good mental health, so we provide healthcare and discounted gym membership,” Hamilton says. “A massage therapist comes to the office regularly to help our team unwind, and we pay for sick days, which isn’t very common in our industry.”
Richard Stewart is co-founder and CEO of employee benefit firm Untangl, which sells a package of employee benefits to clients at a cost of about £20 per employee per month. When setting up the business, Stewart aimed to eradicate practices that make the workplace stressful.
“We swapped pages of long-winded legalese for a simple employment contract and have no dress code, no formal working hours and no tracking of holidays – instead, we trust staff to take ownership of their working lives,” says Stewart. In addition to a benefits package that includes counselling, legal and financial helplines and 24-hour access to a telephone GP service, the firm invested in efficient business systems and processes to help reduce stress.
Charlotte Hamill, joint managing director of social media agency Born Social, believes people “don’t just need to be told it’s OK to talk about mental health at work – they need to be actively encouraged to do it”.
The agency funds monthly facilitated mental health sessions for staff and allows unlimited holiday allowance – something Hamill urges more small businesses to do.
“Some employers worry that people might take advantage but they don’t – have more trust and better faith in the people you hire,” she says. “The peace of mind staff get from knowing they can take some down time without fear of judgement far outweighs the risk of people taking too much leave.”
“You employ the whole person, and that means supporting the whole person, not just their output,” adds Hamill. “Why wouldn’t you want to create a team of people who are thriving rather than just surviving?”
- In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.