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Are you considering the mental health needs of older employees?

6 Jun 2019 By Jamie Mackenzie

It’s easy to overlook older workers in the rush to discuss mental wellbeing. A more nuanced approach is needed, says Jamie Mackenzie

The conversation around mental health has evolved in recent years, and with this, people have finally started to feel more confident to speak up about the struggles they’re facing. Employers have also taken note, with many launching wellbeing initiatives to provide practical support for their employees. However, while many workers are becoming more vocal about their experiences, there are still some that feel unable to overcome the perceived stigma surrounding mental health, especially those from older generations.

Because mental health has only been on the agenda recently, there is a whole generation of workers for whom this topic is still taboo. As a result, if older employees are facing challenges, they are more likely to suffer in silence, avoid conversations with managers or HR, and may even decide to leave the business.

It can be tricky to get older workers to feel comfortable about a subject that wasn’t discussed for such a long time. Even with the introduction of workplace schemes that focus on employee mental health, it’s hard to shake off the perceived stigma. What’s more, with so many businesses looking to bring in fresh talent all the time, it’s easy for older workers to think the organisation would rather prioritise the mental wellness of younger staff over those who could be retiring in a few years’ time. 

To overcome this, employers need to ensure they’re creating a supportive culture in which all employees feel recognised and valued, and that includes older workers. This environment will allow for honest conversations, which mean problems can be addressed head on and unnecessary departures will be less likely. 

If older workers aren’t accustomed to speaking about their mental health, managers should consider moving conversations outside the office setting. Creating a space where staff feel relaxed and confident is key. A quiet café or a short walk around the area, for example, might be what’s needed for older staff members to open up about their mental health. 

Regular time put aside to have these conversations will also allow employers to quickly react when issues arise; just because staff aren’t feeling under any mental strain now, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. Establishing regular opportunities to speak with management also provides an important opportunity for workers to raise their concerns. Small pressures can be brought to the table before they grow into potentially damaging issues. As a result, the topic of mental health will become more normalised and they will feel more confident discussing it with the team. 

Keep the conversation going 

Long-term progress requires employers to make sure any mental health initiatives don’t end up slowly fizzling out. While businesses are good at putting conversations on the table, especially during awareness days and wellbeing events, the initial motivation can get lost in the everyday. This will not only be bad for the team’s mental health generally, but can also lead to employees feeling disillusioned with the scheme and losing confidence in their employers. 

To avoid this, employers need to clearly communicate with staff. Workers need to be made aware of the support that is available – not just for a specific week or day, but every day of every year. With this approach, mental health will soon become part of the business’s ethos. Older staff will trust that their mental wellbeing is a priority for the business and will be more willing to speak up if they’re facing a difficult time. 

Ultimately, in order to normalise the conversation surrounding mental health for older staff, employers must strive to create a supportive working culture. Younger employees may already feel empowered to speak up, so companies must now place an emphasis on passing this idea on to older workers. If companies make good mental health a priority, the subject will become easier for employees to raise and all staff will feel confident speaking about their challenges.

Jamie Mackenzie is director at Sodexo Engage

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