Creating policies and procedures around the mental health of employees is no longer a tick box exercise for employers keen to stay on the right side of the law – now more companies than ever are realising the huge benefits that focusing on wellbeing can have for everyone.

With one in six employees currently dealing with anxiety, depression, stress or related problems(1), there is so much that can be done to help those who have been diagnosed or have admitted they are struggling. But how can we encourage more staff to come forward and talk about the problems they’re experiencing?

Kevin Rogers – CEO at leading health cash plan provider Paycare – looks at how open-door policies and open communication can combine to make it even easier for people to start that all-important conversation.

“When we look at how mental health is treated in most workplaces compared to a few decades ago, the difference is astounding. Thanks largely to charities and campaigns such as Time to Change battling to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, more people than ever are feeling able to approach their bosses once they recognise they have an issue. Crucially those people are also receiving more support.

“The latest figures show more than half a million workers in the UK suffer from work-related stress, depression or anxiety(2) but in reality, there are likely to be many thousands out there who simply haven’t – for one reason or another – felt able to approach their manager and start the conversation. And we all know it’s no use having a fantastic support programme and wonderful HR policies in place if workers don’t feel able to ask for help to access them.

“Making yourself available to chat to staff sounds incredibly simple but is a major factor in whether they then feel comfortable to speak to you about something as important as their mental health, or any other problems they’re facing. Establishing those lines of communication and taking the time to find out about your staff (including any concerns and stresses they have at work) can have a big impact. Something as quick as asking them how they’re doing, if there’s anything they would like to talk about or how their stress levels are can make a difference.

“Knowing you have an open door (either literally or metaphorically) gives the green light when it comes to chats about work – but normalising talk about mental health is important so people realise they can talk about that too. There are so many ways this can be achieved, from bosses being open and upfront about their own mental health to using some of the great visual resources like posters and leaflets from charities and healthcare organisations around the workplace.

“There’s also an opportunity for you to start the conversation if you notice something amiss. Remember it may not always be obvious if someone is struggling – but knowing your staff and recognising subtle differences like their motivation or productivity dipping, them being more tired than usual, changing their eating or smoking habits, or even just seeming a little withdrawn should be a prompt for you to have a casual (but confidential and private) chat to check in.

“Even if they’re fine at that moment, if you continue to show you care and that your door is always open, it might be when they do need support a few months or years down the line they feel more able to approach you.

“An open-door and open communication policy needs to be in evidence right through the company too. It may be that an employee wants to be able to approach their direct line manager if they have a problem, or they’d rather speak to someone they have less daily contact with. Empowering your team throughout the company with a wealth of knowledge about mental health is crucial.

“While we’re not expecting staff to become trained therapists or counsellors, it’s about removing the barriers of communication in the workplace so that all important chat can happen – and there’s a plethora of support from thereon.

“Many companies are introducing systems such as Employee Assistance Programmes which is available to all staff and which offers external support for those who might not want to bring their problems into the workplace. These are completely confidential, and specialists can talk to staff about almost anything they’re struggling with that’s having an impact on their overall wellbeing – from financial worries right the way through to stress, grief and relationship problems.
“Knowing there is someone on the end of the phone whenever they feel strong enough to make that call can have a powerful impact – and once they’ve felt able to open up to one person it may pave the way for them to feel more at ease speaking to a manager at work.

“There’s also virtual GPs – making the trip into their doctor’s surgery where they might encounter people they know can be hugely daunting for someone struggling with their mental health. So, knowing through their workplace health programme they have the ability to book a telephone or video call appointment, again 24/7, can make all the difference.

“Our Paycare GP 24/7 app is a hugely popular benefit for our corporate customers and enables their teams to get the help they feel they might need without having to take time off work to do so, or waiting weeks for the next physical appointment at their surgery.

“And of course, there are more training opportunities than ever available for companies, whether it’s for staff, managers or both and whether you want to be trained in your own workplace, elsewhere or even online. Topics are varied and cover everything from reducing stigma at work, practising self-care and potential triggers to mindfulness, starting the conversation and sleep workshops.

“Ultimately some people will never feel comfortable in sharing their mental health concerns with their employer – but the more companies continue to provide training, pledge their support, establish trust and open communication and talk about mental health as normally as they would physical health, the more chance they have of encouraging staff to talk and access support if they need to.”

Paycare is a not-for-profit health cash plan provider which has been protecting individuals, their loved ones and their businesses from everyday healthcare costs for over 140 years. Visit www.paycare.org, email enquiries@paycare.org or call 01902 371000 to find out more.

1. https://www.mind.org.uk/media/550657/resource4.pdf
2. http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/
3. https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1309455/4_Intensity_Minireport_Final.pdf