What’s HR’s responsibility for workplace mental health?

In Mental Health Awareness week, Renae Shaw explains the legal, financial and ethical reasons for getting the issue firmly on the boardroom agenda

At any one time, one in six members of the population in England aged 16 to 64 has a mental health problem, and it is estimated that absence due to mental health costs the UK economy around £34.9 billion per year. With 12.7 per cent of all sickness absence days in the UK attributed to mental health conditions, these are not statistics that can be ignored. Poor mental health can also exasperate physical health conditions, while contributing to lower morale and reduced productivity. 

As a HR professional, there are steps you can take to ensure mental health initiatives are implemented and upheld by the business.

Put together your business case 

Any initiatives aimed at improving mental health will fail unless you can get top-level buy-in. HR can help foster positive behaviour by outlining clear expectations for managers, as well as aligning policies and practices to ensure mental health is a clear priority. 

When putting together a business case, outline the potential risks of not putting initiatives in place, such as the financial impact of rising sick pay, lost time and high staff turnover. Businesses also risk hefty fines if they don’t comply with the law: it is a requirement that businesses record, manage and reduce health and safety risks (of which workplace stress is one), while making reasonable adjustments for those suffering from mental ill-health, in the same way as with physical illnesses. 

Your case should also look at the moral implications of protecting employees’ mental health. Most adults will come into contact with mental health issues in their lifetime, whether that’s through a health issue they suffer personally, or through friends and family who are struggling. Staff members are more likely to feel connected to the organisation when they have been shown empathy and support.

Get staff talking to reduce the stigma 

Despite the UK seeing huge progress in recent years, talking openly about mental health can still be difficult, and some industries are more accepting than others. Simply launching an Employee Assistance Programme won’t be enough – it is only through regular communication and engagement with staff that you can show the company cares about mental health. 

Talking about mental ill-health also plays a major role in helping to reduce the stigma, so staff feel more able to speak out when they’re struggling. 

Inviting guest speakers to talk about their journey with mental health and encouraging senior leaders to speak out about their own experiences can help to get the conversation started.

Train staff at all levels 

Early intervention can minimise the effects of stress and poor mental health, so it is critical line managers are able to recognise signs that their staff are struggling. Despite this, it’s been found that over half of managers are not receiving the training they need to support staff mental health. With heavy workloads and management styles found to be the top two causes of stress-related absence, some managers may also be afraid to have these conversations. HR can help managers to understand their legal obligations with regard to health and safety, while also equipping them with the softer skills required to have conversations in the right way.

No one is more equipped to know what is ‘normal’ for them than the individual. Providing resilience training, and helping staff help themselves, is a powerful tool in improving wellbeing. Having mental health first aiders on a peer-to peer-level also means staff have somewhere to turn besides their manager.  

Make reasonable adjustments

Even with a robust wellbeing strategy in place, employees will still face mental health difficulties. Making reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantages felt by staff because of a physical or mental illness is a legal requirement under the Equality Act 2010 and can help staff to reach their full potential. 

Flexible working has been cited as the number one priority of British workers, and all employees have the legal right to request a change to their working arrangements. Offering flexible start and finish times can help alleviate stress caused by the daily commute, and therefore could be deemed a reasonable adjustment. 

Be proactive as well as reactive 

Companies should take proactive steps to ensure they do not have any business practices which aren’t conducive to positive mental health. Rather than responding to poor mental health, the workplace should actively promote positive wellbeing. This could involve communicating a compelling vision, providing learning opportunities, creating meaningful work, and having a sense of shared purpose.  

Mental health in the workplace is a complex topic which encompasses all elements of the employee life cycle and touches on many aspects of effective HR management. A wellbeing strategy might include leadership actions, culture change, policy creation, staff and management training, and more. It may not be possible to tackle everything at once, so sensible prioritisation and concentrated focus will be needed. 

Renae Shaw is head of HR at Search Laboratory