Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace: Our Role as Leaders
Written by Jane Hughes
By Jane Hughes, Chief Executive, Mental Health Matters, Alum 2013 Oct Developing Strategic Leaders Programme
Tuesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and each year the focus is set by the Mental Health Foundation. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of mental health, helping to drive positive change for everyone’s mental health and this year the theme is ‘mental health is a universal human right’. I do not think any of us would disagree with this, particularly in the context that one in four of us will experience poor mental health at some point in our life.
My first experience of the impact of poor mental health came at an early age when my father experienced a mental health crisis resulting in him spending several weeks in hospital. It was only in later years I realised the effects that the stigma associated with mental health had played in the guarded way that friends and colleagues had responded to my father. With hindsight, much of this was due to lack of awareness and understanding of mental health.
Fortunately, attitudes to mental health have come a long way, as we talk more openly about our mental health and wellbeing, with increased visibility and exposure in the media. For each of us our mental health is on a spectrum that can be affected by numerous factors. Having an awareness of this, and understanding what affects your own wellbeing, is invaluable in helping to manage your mental health.
Looking after our own mental health and wellbeing
Only four months before the pandemic took hold in the UK, I was delighted to take up the role of Chief Executive of Mental Health Matters. As a national charity, providing a broad range of mental health support and services, this was a particularly challenging time for our teams, eager to maintain the support to those accessing our help.
My first thoughts were to focus on the needs of our teams, but I also realised that to be effective in my role, it was essential to look after my own wellbeing.
During my career, I have learnt the value of having a network of like-minded and trusted peers with whom I have shared experiences of leadership and the isolation that we can feel in the most taxing of times. I am both fortunate and grateful that this network is an invaluable source of support to me, particularly as I continue to grapple with the evolving and new challenges faced in the post-Covid world. Equally important, is my small group of friends and family who will always offer a listening ear whilst I work through some of my challenges.
Changes affecting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace
As a mental health charity, our teams continue to see the impact from the pandemic on people’s mental health, further exacerbated by inequalities in our society and the cost-of-living crisis. The consequence is that we are supporting people with higher levels of complexity. Despite their training and experience, this can affect the wellbeing of colleagues, and for them to effectively support those accessing our services, it is essential that we prioritise and support their wellbeing too.
As leaders we are constantly faced with changing ways of working that bring positive progress and increase the flexibility of how we work, but these can also have unanticipated negative consequences for some. Hybrid and remote working and the increased use of digital approaches, whilst welcomed by many, can be isolating for others. For example, those who live alone, and welcome the interaction of going into a work environment, can miss social aspects of working alongside colleagues. Some leaders are now finding the need to revisit decisions taken about how their organisations function in a post-Covid world.
Establishing the workplace to support mental health and wellbeing
Creating the appropriate workplace and culture lays the foundations for supporting wellbeing. Increasingly organisations value and have a focus on their employees’ wellbeing and below I include just a few ideas and pointers that may be of use in various settings:
- As leaders we can ensure employee wellbeing is a priority by modelling behaviours that give permission to others to take time to understand and protect their own mental health and wellbeing.
- Embedding wellbeing within the values of the organisation. As part of our corporate induction, I always reflect on one of our core values of being compassionate, stressing the importance of showing kindness, consideration and understanding to our colleagues.
- Implementing a Wellbeing Strategy that creates an inclusive and open environment means people are more likely to feel they can speak up and ask for help.
- Establishing mental health champions who can promote mental health awareness, challenge stigma, recognise when someone is struggling and offer help and support. If you haven’t already, then investing in training for Mental Health First Aiders can further support this.
- Whilst there will be limitations within different job roles, discussing with someone how and where they work, and any potential flexibility, can support improved wellbeing as they feel more in control of their working arrangements.
- Training our managers to recognise that part of their role is to support the wellbeing of their teams and making time and space in employee one-to-ones to check in on their wellbeing and identify if any support is needed.
- Establishing a Wellbeing Network and encouraging interested colleagues to become involved so our workforce can help shape the approach to better wellbeing.
- Ensuring that accessible and suitable support is available, for example through the various services offered by an Employee Assistance Programme and how you make use of occupational health. There are also some good NHS approved apps available which promote self-help around mental health and wellbeing.
The benefits of enabling a healthy workplace are many and supporting wellbeing helps colleagues to grow, flourish, be happy and achieve in their role. I cannot think of a better reason for creating such an environment.
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