It’s time employers brought mental health to the top of the agenda

This Mental Health Awareness Week, organisations need to realise the importance of fostering psychological safety within their workforces, says Nicky Pattimore

At some point or another, most of us have felt pressure at work. But long hours, tight deadlines (and even tighter profit margins), coupled with an ‘always on’ culture exacerbated by technology, means increasing numbers of workers are suffering from burnout. In short, the UK is facing a growing stress epidemic in the workplace.

This is extremely concerning, not only for the long-term health of individuals, but from a business perspective; absences relating to mental health issues reportedly cost UK businesses a staggering £8.4 billion a year. For employers, the action is clear; not only do they have a duty of care as an employer to protect the mental safety of their employees, but also to recognise the role that safeguarding psychological safety has on the business bottom line.

We’ve come a long way in the past few years in shifting stigmas surrounding mental health – but there is still much more to be done. We need to ensure we are opening a dialogue about mental health in all areas of life – including and particularly at work. That’s why, this Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re calling on employers to take the lead in fostering mental wellbeing in the workplace. 

Earlier this year, we published our Leading in a Digital Age report: an examination of psychological safety in the workplace. We define psychological safety as the feeling of being supported by managers, having the confidence to speak up about issues and being yourself without fear. 

Worryingly, our research found that over half (52 per cent) of employees in organisations with a global footprint had encountered workplace bullying, and that the same number had felt psychologically unsafe at work. This was caused by workers feeling overwhelmed or inadequate, having arguments in the workplace and managers failing to prioritise psychological safety.

We also identified a huge discrepancy between how senior managers and employees view psychological safety. Despite 94 per cent of respondents saying they consider psychological safety to be important, just 10 per cent of businesses treat it as a priority. 

An alarming one in five businesses also admit they would only take action once an issue arises, suggesting many employers are taking the ‘wait and see’ approach to employee mental health, with no measures in place to support psychological safety.

However, in the modern workplace, this approach simply won’t cut it. If employers want to demonstrate that the mental health of their employees matters to them, they need to be proactive about driving change and put psychological safety to the top of the priority list.

So what can they do? 

Part of the issue surrounding the lack of mental health support in the workplace appears to stem from confusion around accountability. Our research found that while 43 per cent of senior management teams expect HR to deal with the psychological safety of employees at work, the majority of employees (56 per cent) believe it should be line managers and senior management that take the lead.

The first step employers need to take in prioritising mental health is simply to work out who in their business is accountable for handling any issues or risks. Whether it be HR, line managers or senior management – or a combination of all three – having clearly defined responsibilities will demonstrate that there is a strategy in place, and that mental health is an issue that matters to the business.

At the City & Guilds Group we believe that good mental health practice and good management go hand in hand; the more leaders prioritise psychological safety, the more likely they are to realise the benefits of an engaged and trusting workforce. Within our business, we train mental health first aiders and peer coaches to support the wellbeing of our people.

Because after all, having just one employee who feels psychologically unsafe at work is one too many. We spend one-third of our adult lives at work – so this Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s ensure we’re doing everything possible to make the working environment a safe and supportive space.

Nicky Pattimore is group director of employee experience at City & Guilds Group