Mind’s Sarah Merrington: ‘Let those with lived experience influence your mental health at work policies’

As mental wellbeing concerns continue to rise while levels of disclosure decline, Mind’s Mental Health at Work programme lead shares ways in which HR teams can help tackle the stigma and support colleagues

As head of the Mental Health at Work programme at Mind, Sarah Merrington has witnessed the varying levels of organisations’ commitment to supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. But what is the current state of play? Who is most vulnerable to mental ill health and what role can HR play in breaking down stigma – while not forgetting to also look after themselves in the process? People Management caught up with Merrington ahead of her session at the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition next month.

What is the current state of affairs when it comes to mental wellbeing at work? Has Mind seen evidence of concerns increasing since Covid? 

We actually saw an improvement during and just after Covid. The reason for that was an awful lot of organisations were becoming way more aware of mental health and the needs of their people. If they weren't working from home, they were in frontline services where there were increased mental health pressures. So employers were starting to put a lot more time, energy and money into thinking about workplace mental health and were talking about it more in their organisations. 

But unfortunately, we’ve seen a drop in investment in recent years and we’re now back to pre-pandemic levels. The results of Mind’s last Workplace Wellbeing Index report revealed that 57 per cent of us have experienced poor mental health in our current job over the past year. And we also know that fewer people who are experiencing poor mental health are disclosing it. Just 49 per cent are actually telling their employer about their problems, which is in some ways more concerning than the mental health issues themselves, because we want to be making sure that workplaces are providing an environment where people feel they are able to speak up freely. Because of the cost of living crisis and the tumultuous labour market etc, people are feeling much more vulnerable about their jobs and their positions, which is why it is more important than ever to capitalise on some of the gains we made during the pandemic around mental wellbeing and stigma.

Is there evidence of mental health concerns being more prevalent among certain staff?

The rise in mental health concerns are particularly stark in certain employee groups; for example, early careers or 18-24 year olds. We know they are the most literate in terms of mental health of any worker that we've seen, but they have high levels of mental ill health and are also the least likely to disclose their mental health concerns to their employer. The same is the case for LGBTQ+ employees, as well as people of colour and those on low incomes. In fact, there is a direct link between being in poverty and having poor mental health and then having lower levels of disclosure, too.

When asked why employees did not want to speak up at work, the top reason was they did not feel comfortable discussing the issue, followed by not wanting to be treated as more vulnerable than other colleagues. Third, employees experiencing mental ill health were worried their employer would think they could not do their job properly. People felt more strongly about all these statements than they did two years before. This indicates that stigma is actually increasing again as times get harder, so breaking down that stigma is crucial.

What role can HR play in helping to destigmatise mental health concerns at work?

Standard three of the Mental Health at Work Commitment is about how you create an open culture around mental health. Sharing lived experience can make people feel less alone and more able to disclose or seek help. Our data tells us that employees would like more visible intervention from senior leaders if wellbeing initiatives are to reach their full potential. For example, it can have a huge impact when senior leaders have open conversations about mental health, further dispelling cynicism from staff and volunteers about the authenticity of your mental health and wellbeing programmes. But anyone who is willing to openly talk about their mental health can really help others. So it’s key to actively seek out those who will share their mental health story and create safe spaces for these conversations internally to help raise awareness that people are not alone and that there is support available. 

Another way to empower individuals in an organisation is to enable them to take an active role in championing the issue, by becoming peer supporters or mental health champions – but make sure these people are well supported. It is often those with lived experience that put themselves forward to champion mental health and therefore putting their mental health first while performing this role should be a priority. 

Taking part in external mental health awareness campaigns and encouraging conversations as part of one-to-one and team meetings can help too. Basically, ensuring there is the opportunity to connect and talk in a range of ways is key.

What practical steps can HR teams take to support workers with their mental health and wellbeing?

Line manager training and support. As with a lot of workplace matters, the importance of supportive line managers is crucial for this, and that means regular training. According to our research, 62 per cent of employees agree or strongly agree that their line manager supports their mental health at work. Yet a large number – 29 per cent – still disagree with that statement, so there is still work to be done. It is vital that this group is well trained, but also feels really able to put that training into practice. And I think, potentially, that's where employers are falling down. There is a lot of focus on mental health training, which is great but, unless businesses actually have a plan on how to support line managers to put that into practice and look after their own mental health, it becomes a less valuable exercise.

Use data to develop a strategy. I advise HR teams to really think about their measurement of mental health. Rather than including a couple of questions on mental health in the wider employee survey, have a specific mental health and wellbeing survey to then build a comprehensive mental wellbeing strategy to work towards. There are plenty of tools – including Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Snapshot – for organisations that perhaps have more limited resources, to help get an overview of your employees’ wellbeing, and to identify areas you need to focus on.

Tailor your mental wellbeing approaches. I obviously recommend following Mind’s Mental Health at Work Commitment, which is a free framework, information and support to help demonstrate to employees that you are taking their mental wellbeing seriously and have a clear plan about how to make changes that are needed. But it’s no longer OK to just have a general one-size-fits-all approach – HR teams should work with staff networks and employee groups and develop specific plans with the help of those with lived experience. For example, an LGBTQ+ staff network and a multi-ethnic staff network will provide you with valuable insights that will really help you to understand their specific challenges and what they feel would help them. 

Align all policies. Having a standalone mental health and wellbeing framework is great, but you have to consider how this works alongside other workplace policies. Flexible working is a really key example. We know flexible work is a really important part of supporting people with mental health conditions, but if those two policies don't work together then there's obviously an issue. When HR professionals are looking at policies and mapping how they will work across the organisation, they should consider how they interact with mental health and what changes may need to be made to also support people with mental health conditions specifically in each policy.

Consider benchmarking. If there is some funding available, try benchmarking your data and approaches with other sector organisations. This helps to provide context, but also opens opportunities to share and learn best practice. Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index is a benchmark of best practice and policy. It celebrates the good work employers are doing to promote positive mental health in the workplace. It also makes recommendations on the areas where there's room to improve.

Ultimately, employers do not need to travel this road alone – there is plenty of information, guidance, advice and services from many places including our Mental Health at Work programme. 

People profession focus workshop: How to look after the people profession

Join Merrington and a panel of HR and mental health experts at the CIPD’s Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester on 7-8 November to explore how organisations can support their people professionals while they take care of others

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Further reading

If you’re going through hell, keep going – an HR practitioner’s mental health journey