People Practice » Employee wellbeing and mental health

A recent poll of governance professionals conducted by ICSA: The Governance Institute and recruitment specialist The Core Partnership has found that board level action on employee wellbeing and mental health is inadequate.

With 61% of employees having experienced mental health issues due to work or where work was a related factor according to the Prince’s Responsible Business Network’s Mental Health at Work 2018 Report, this is clearly an area that requires more attention from UK boards.

The Mental Health at Work 2018 Report, which was published in October, finds that mental health at work is still a neglected issue with employers ill-prepared to accommodate or make reasonable adjustments for those with mental health issues in the same way that they might for those with physical health issue.

This position is supported by the ICSA/Core poll, which sees just under half (49%) of respondents considering that their companies offer enough support for their staff’s mental wellbeing. What is more, fewer than half of the organisations polled have considered employee wellbeing and mental health at board level.

Just 45% of boards have considered these issues, 34% have not and the remaining 21% of respondents were unsure if their board had or not.

The lack of focus is perhaps the reason why the Mental Health at Work 2018 Report asserts that there is still a disconnect between what senior leaders believe about the support provided and the reality of employees day to day.

This sentiment is reinforced by the findings of the ICSA/Core poll, in which one respondent states: ‘As someone who has experienced mental health issues in the past, I am not sure that the provision that organisations do make is either as appropriate or as accessible as they think it is.’

Managing the issue

The fact that CEOs and board members are more likely than those with no managerial responsibility to believe that their organisation supports its staff is a worry. Good employee mental health is critical to the running of successful, sustainable organisations.

With one in three of the UK workforce having been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime and six per cent of employees living with a formally diagnosed condition like depression, general anxiety, panic attacks and eating disorders for more than 10 years, much more board-level consideration needs to be given to how mental health is affecting people and their ability to operate at work.

Both the report and the ICSA/Core poll point to lack of high-quality mental health training for line managers as a pivotal issue. Efforts are being made, however. Those respondents to the ICSA/Core poll who felt that their organisations did do enough to support employee wellbeing gave a number of examples.

One respondent specified that ‘There is currently a wellbeing awareness drive in the company and the new office refurbishment has been done with employee wellbeing, breakout spaces, quiet areas, social areas, etc, in mind’.

Another stated: ‘We have a proactive approach to mental health – particularly stress at work.’ While another respondent said ‘We have mental health first aiders, we have medical support helplines and services available to employees, line manager training and encouraging employees to publicly talk about their experience.’

Of those boards that are engaged with employee wellbeing and mental health, at least one board has discussed the impact that increased pressure and change at work has on mental wellbeing and has begun discussing what more could be done to alleviate this in a sustained way. Another ‘is involved and understanding the issues affecting employees and how this can have a negative effect on business.’

However, a small majority of respondents felt that their organisations could do more and raised some specific issues, including:

  • Working practices: ‘The right noises are made, including championing at ExCo level, but the structures in place and the aggressive drive to achieve more with fewer resources (under the guise of “smarter ways of working”) do not support employees’ wellness in practice.’
  • Resources: ‘We did start to support the Time to Change movement but then resources got tighter and no one had the time or resource to continue the work, and it didn’t have buy in at a senior level, so sadly lapsed.’
  • Culture: ‘As a company with a devolved structure we do not offer the level of support and care I have witnessed in other companies. With a rather “Macho” culture, any sign of unwellness, physical or mental, is considered to be weak.’
  • Workload: ‘We have undergone a number of restructurings with no obvious support offered to those affected either directly or indirectly, ie due to increased or changed workload.’
  • Management buy-in: ‘There are various initiatives underway but whether or not it is taken seriously by senior management remains to be seen.’

The support of mental wellbeing needs to be approached as a long-term and integral part of overall employee wellbeing. Rather than treating individual mental health issues reactively, a much more holistic approach needs to be implemented.

Training managers to spot the signs, having a culture where people can talk openly about their mental health without being judged and encouraging reporting which can support discussion at board level would make a big difference.