Why proactive prevention is the best way to tackle mental ill-health

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr Rebecca Holt explains why organisations must take a less reactive approach to employee wellbeing

Looking after our mental health at work is now more important than ever. As has been said, there is no vaccine for the pandemic’s mental health-related consequences. Ongoing research suggests that the long-term impact is towards increasing levels of psychological distress. The picture is complex but one thing is clear: we can no longer sit back, ignore it and just react. We need to proactively prioritise our mental health in the workplace.

If we are really committed to looking after our own and our workforce’s mental health, we need to seriously reconsider how we are focusing our resources. Historically we have spent 80 per cent on crisis – our EAP programmes and training our mental health first aiders – and 20 per cent on remaining well in the workplace. We need to flip this investment. If Covid has taught us anything it is that we all have mental health and our focus needs to be on prevention rather than the crisis.  

With something so complex, it is undoubtedly a challenge for organisations to know where to begin. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the ‘sticking plaster’ approach has prevailed for so long. So how can we begin to turn the tables? 

We first need to reflect on our organisational culture around mental health. The number one priority is to tackle stigma about mental ill-health in the workplace and create a psychologically safe culture of openness. Mental health is still the elephant in the room in many businesses and there is a reluctance to talk about it for fear of discrimination. Modelling vulnerability at a senior level demonstrates how we all may struggle with our mental health at times, but this doesn’t mean we can’t be successful and good at what we do. Regular communication from senior leaders to reinforce the importance of staff wellbeing is without doubt one of the most effective and powerful ways to shift the culture.

It is essential that organisations develop a mental health plan communicating the importance of mental health and wellbeing. This plan should include how the company plans to address the work-related causes of mental health problems; how work-life balance will be supported; creating clear guidance for managers; and establishing what support will be offered to those experiencing poor mental health. 

Employers need to have ways of measuring staff wellbeing. How can we know what we need to do if we haven’t identified the need? It is important that a wellbeing programme is developed in conjunction with staff and in response to their particular needs, rather than imposed from the top down. It needs to be creative, flexible, easily accessible and tailored to the specific needs of the employees. One size does not fit all. 

Promotion of effective people management is key. How can we move towards ensuring all employees have a regular conversation about their health and wellbeing with their line manager? This can only be possible if people feel psychologically safe to do this, without fear of discrimination. Likewise, line managers may be reluctant to do this for fear of saying the wrong thing and making the situation worse – real fears that we hear frequently in our training of line managers around mental health awareness. Ensuring staff and managers have a good understanding of mental health and the factors that affect workplace wellbeing is essential. Developing mental health awareness initiatives is the most effective way to do this. 

We must also look at the systemic work conditions that help people thrive. A proactive approach needs to address the factors that we know impact on people’s mental health at work. Having greater autonomy and control in one’s role, opportunities for development, feeling that we have a healthy work-life balance and that we can build social networks are all crucial predictors of our wellbeing at work.  

With a global focus on the mental health impact of the pandemic, we now have a perfect opportunity to really reverse the longstanding reactive model of addressing the mental health of our workforce. We need to embrace this opportunity if we are to thrive at work and outside. 

Dr Rebecca Holt is co-founder of Working Mindset