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Mental health awareness in the workplace

Mental health awareness in the workplace

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Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental Health Awareness Week has been established to increase public understanding of mental health, and how mental health problems can be prevented.

Since it began in the early 2000s it has contributed to government policy changes, helping to highlight mental health in the UK and what actions can be taken to ensure that society values and promotes good health for all.

Mental Health Awareness Week runs this year from 15th – 21st May, with anxiety as this year’s theme. Therefore, we now a great opportunity to discuss anxiety, how it can affect us, how we cope with its effects and what we can do to feel our best. For employers, it’s the perfect time to remind colleagues of policies and benefits which can support positive mental wellbeing.

What is anxiety?

Feeling anxious is a necessary human response to danger or threat, meaning that fear prompts us to react as needed.  Anxiety can become problematic when it persists, and influences how someone would ordinarily live their life. This is when an anxiety disorder may be diagnosed.

Anxiety can affect our thoughts and feelings, and cause us to experience physical symptoms too.

Common examples of anxiety disorders are generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), health anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder and perinatal anxiety.

According to The Health and Safety Executive, anxiety – along with work-related stress and depression – were responsible for 17 million working days lost in 2021/22. There were 914,000 workers suffering from anxiety, work-related stress and depression in 2021/22, and it is estimated that that figure is rising.

Anxiety and financial wellbeing

The fact that we are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis cannot be ignored, and that this is increasing the prevalence of common mental health disorders like anxiety.  Being so widespread, this has an impact on both personal and organisational-wide wellbeing.

The Mental Health Foundation reports that in a survey of 3,000 adults, 34% reported feeling anxious due to financial worries during the previous month. It states that ‘there are steps we can take to protect people’s mental health… We must support those at higher risk by….raising benefits in line with inflation and employers committing to pay their staff the real living wage…preventing mental health problems is vital.’

How can employers help their employees?

Prevention is better than cure, and those organisations that have a holistic wellbeing strategy, which fully encompasses mental health prevention and support, will ultimately have more productive and engaged employees.

Many companies will offer their employees fantastic benefits that encourage positive mental health. But in order for them to have the intended effect, it is vital to communicate them frequently, and through channels best utilised by employees.

It is also important that employers use data to their best advantage, to determine where investment is most valuable and to inform other, consistent means of boosting engagement. Employers should regularly review management information from benefits, such as Employee Assistance Programmes. They can collaborate with providers and benefit consultancy firms to support with ongoing employee engagement; activities such as presentations and webinars can really enhance engagement and, ultimately, value.

It is also recommended to survey your employees regularly, to understand more about what they want from their policy and benefits, without just adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach. What one employee might think is important to them may not even register as important to another.

On an individual level, many businesses now have wellbeing champions and mental health first aiders. These are employees who volunteer to be advocates for positive mental health, and can assist with signposting to areas of support and coaching. Line manager training is also important, as managers are usually the first port of call for sickness absence.

This Mental Health Awareness Week is a great time to consider whether your employee benefits are best supporting good mental health across your organisation.  With ‘anxiety’ being this year’s theme, and knowing that the cost-of-living crisis is contributing to significant anxiety around finances, a review of financial wellbeing benefits would be especially pertinent. However, employers can apply fundamental principles to ensure that they are getting the best value from their wellbeing-related benefits, thus supporting their employees’ long-term mental health.