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How to improve workplace culture to help combat absence due to mental wellbeing

Cultural problems in workplaces are fuelling absences due to poor mental wellbeing. Here’s how we believe you can start to move forward from this phenomenon in a positive way.

Figures from our research tell an alarming story: this year, more than 11 million UK adults took time off work due to poor mental wellbeing. This equates to roughly 35% of the workforce calling in sick for between two and five days  per year, which, based off recent research from the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, works out at between £232-£580 per employee, per year in absenteeism costs.

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Benenden Health’s Mental Wellbeing Report

Understand why stigma is still preventing employees from telling their boss the truth about their mental wellbeing in the workplace

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Yet when we surveyed over 1,000 UK employees, just 38% felt able to be honest with their employer when it came to taking time off for mental wellbeing. 29% would cite a physical health problem, whilst 24% would voluntarily take annual leave to avoid the conversation altogether.

Something is stopping employees from being forthcoming with their feelings. In many ways, our research has revealed just how damaging silence can be: it threatens wellbeing, happiness and productivity in the workplace. All that being said, is this a case of employees being all too cautious in being open, or are there genuine impediments to them doing so?

It would seem employees simply dont feel all that happy to confide in bosses or even colleagues: 43% would go to family and 35% would turn to their friends. When it comes to a professional intervention, 38% would present at the GP, but only 14% would talk to their boss, 16% would confide in a colleague and – staggeringly – 9% would ask HR for help. Sat on this side of the fence, it would seem that a cultural shake-up of many organisations is in order.

We wanted to get to the heart of the matter, so we asked both employees and employers about the stigma that would appear to still surround mental wellbeing. 30% of employees said that they feared the stigma that would come from them being open around their mental wellbeing. 26% were worried about gossip and 27% felt that they would be worried people will treat them differently. From an employees perspective, this tells us that there’s still so much more ground to cover in this area. Employers arent denying this, either: we surveyed over 1,000 business owners and directors, 71%  of whom agreed that there’s still a stigma around discussing mental wellbeing in the workplace.

It follows that both employers and employees need to be accountable here: have employers asked their team how they feel? And have employees responded honestly? The answer to both of these questions is probably somewhere in the middle. Our survey looked at businesses from the very small to the very large, across the UK and across sectors. Employers, in some circumstances, will lean towards a wellbeing policy that favours existing procedures and infrastructure. Employees, in turn, may well say that everything is great, for fear of repercussions. Without both parties digging a bit deeper, it’s unlikely that the right sort of mental wellbeing policies will be commonplace in UK organisations.

How to create a culture of positive mental wellbeing

With greater transparency, employees would feel more comfortable in coming forward about why they need to take some time off. They could then be appropriately supported and managed back into work in a way that is better for them and the business. The solution makes pastoral and financial sense, but rolling out effective measures can be a challenge. What works? What doesn’t? And where do you start?

Here at Benenden Health we recently reviewed and evolved our existing health and wellbeing strategy and developed a plan for 2019-2021. We use this plan to structure our own approach to supporting our employees, as well as sharing it with other organisations to assist them in improving their workplace culture. The approach doesn’t just cover mental wellbeing; it encompasses all areas of and improving wellness. Our belief is that by working well and living better, our colleagues will be at their best in all of their roles in life.

Actionable changes that you can make (and we have encouraged within Benenden Health) to support mental wellbeing include:

1. Wellness action plans

Encourage your team to take some time out of their schedule for self-reflection and to build a wellness action plan. This plan will enable each of your colleagues to elaborate how they feel and what they look like to the outside world at their best and, conversely, when they are struggling. The plan is a gateway for them to consider how their managers and colleagues can assist when they’re not at their best.

2. Mental Health First Aiders

We strongly recommend appointing Mental Health First Aiders, who are trained to talk about mental wellbeing, intervene in a crisis and are highly approachable to colleagues. It’s also worthwhile recruiting Mental Health First Aiders that reflect the demographic of your organisation. When we introduced Mental Health First Aiders into Benenden Health, the first 18 months saw them help in over 20 cases of colleagues whose mental wellbeing was in jeopardy.

3. Training for managers

As well as having Mental Health First Aiders in place, it’s also important to take the time to train managers to spot the signs of poor mental wellbeing and to instill in them the confidence to have a conversation with team members who need some assistance. This step is crucial to organisational transformation: our Mental Health First Aiders are now much less busy than they were, because so many managers are in position of approachability, allowing colleagues to choose who they are most comfortable with if and when they need to have a chat.

4. Resilience training

It can be all too easy to assume that your team is already equipped to deal with changes to working patterns, responsibilities and the wider socio-economic environment. It pays to offer training in professional resilience, to afford each and every one of your team the emotional toolkit to better adjust to change. This is particularly pertinent as we write this piece in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our colleagues, here at Benenden Health, have found this training has helped them with tools and strategies to dealing with life stresses outside of the workplace too.

5. Job fulfilment measures

Mental wellbeing on the job is largely modulated by how satisfied people feel in their role. You can take steps to improve their sense of satisfaction, including a proper career plan and reviews. This should sit under a clear communication strategy around where everyone fits into the wider organisation’s plan and structure. Bring fulfilment full circle by introducing appreciation rituals. These can be as simple as a “shout out Friday” or a monthly call-out from one colleague to another for being helpful. Ultimately, it’s nice to feel appreciated and valued.

6. Physical health action plan

Training and tools to facilitate exercise and better sleep should be a given: the link between physical and mental health is inextricable. Introducing team-led initiatives, such as which team can take the most steps, takes the hard work out of exercise and provides a further platform for camaraderie.

The investment required, therefore, is one of both infrastructure and genuine effort. Each of the steps above is relatively small and progressive, but when combined together, their impact for positive change is compelling.

Joining it all together

If your workforce isnt being transparent about whats on their mind, you will absolutely need to develop a sound mental wellbeing policy, offer routes to a helping hand and lay on resources for self-help. All of this, however, wont work unless you foster a culture of compassion and openness: this comes from the top down and requires the same level of attention as developing new ways of working.

A potential route forward is to look at a healthcare benefit for employees, which includes professional, compassionate and impartial support on demand. To do so will tell your team that you take their wellbeing seriously; putting this across thoughtfully via internal communications will tell them that you care. Buying in” this support is freeing to both employers and employees: employers understand that the support offered will be comprehensive and, crucially, compliant with HR legislation. Employees, meanwhile, will see the support as a third party who provides a confidential service away from the employer.

COVID-19 has put the spotlight on mental wellbeing. The pandemic has revealed flaws and weaknesses in old ways of working, whilst making it OK to consider flexible working as a new way of working in the long term. With a collective acceptance of tough times has come a greater willingness to talk about mental wellbeing. Lets not leave the start of healthier conversations behind as teams start to return to the office: its one good thing to take away from COVID-19.

Please do get in touch to discuss our research in more detail or to talk to us about our health and wellbeing strategyWorking Well, Living Better.

Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179, or alternatively, you can download the full Mental Wellbeing in the Workplace Report 2020 here.

Find out how Benenden Healthcare for Business could support your employees

Got a question and want to know more? Call us FREE on 0800 414 8179.