Workplace Wellbeing Professional had the opportunity to sit down with David Lewis, the principal of Rightsteps – a specialist provider of mental health and well-being solutions for organisations. Rightsteps provide online support for a variety of mental health and well-being issues such as anxiety, sleep, menopause and gambling etc.
As someone who works alongside a wide range of employers providing expert therapy services, WWP sought David’s understanding of the current conditions of mental health in the workplace, and advice on how to adapt and monitor employee wellbeing to provide sustainable mental health support.
How have recent events, such as the COLC and the pandemic, affected adult mental health?
Those events have undoubtedly affected adult mental health, but it’s also an accumulative effect of what’s happened over the last 2/3 years.
When we look at the pandemic, some adults’ mental health and well-being were undeniably adversely affected. But, as the lockdown eased, so did the impact on mental health, and the majority of adults retained stable and good mental health levels during the pandemic.
However, what’s critical is that this wasn’t true across the entire population. Particular groups within the population were affected differently. For example, women’s mental health was more adversely impacted. As were young adults, people who were also experiencing loss of income or employment, people from deprived backgrounds, and then perhaps more obviously, people who lived alone or felt lonely. Interestingly, those who felt that they had less control over their lives were at greater risk of being adversely affected.
Of course, the pandemic has since largely eased, but now we’re amid the cost-of-living crisis. This means that more people are experiencing financial difficulties, and what’s known is that associated money worries can greatly impact people’s mental health.
There’s recently been a survey from the BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy) amongst their members, which has looked at the current impact of the COLC on people’s mental health and the people that their members are supporting. They found that:
* 2/3 of therapists say that cost-of-living concerns are causing a decline in people’s mental health.
* 6 in 10 therapists say that clients are anxious about whether they can afford to pay their household bills.
* Just over half of therapists are reporting that clients are losing sleep due to money worries.
* Approximately half of the therapists say that clients are already cutting back on activities that benefit their mental health such as gym memberships and sports activities.
So, what we’ve seen over the last couple of years is an accumulative effect of multiple stresses affecting people, and that critically different groups have been impacted to a greater or lesser extent. We want to help organisations navigate this which is why we put together our Winter Pressures Guide to help HR and wellbeing leads plan for the winter ahead.
Across the UK, do you feel that organisations are currently doing enough to support employee mental health?
What we see is a huge variation in the levels of maturity in the organisations that approach Rightsteps for help with their employee wellbeing strategy. Some employers are still very much at the start of their journeys whereas other are really pushing ahead to ensure that employee mental health is well supported in their organisation. But whether this is enough or not is quite a complex question to answer.
We should think of mental health as being a spectrum, with people sitting at different points on the spectrum being affected by things both inside and outside of work, and also by individual factors. Then, when we look at organisations and consider whether they are doing enough, what we have to do is start by looking at the organisation itself and more specifically, the workforce within that organisation. We need to understand who that workforce is, who the different groups are within that organisation and what their specific needs are. We also need an understanding of how different roles within an organisation can both positively and negatively impact individuals’ mental health.
Employers need to ensure they are managing the working environment – they’ve got a legal obligation to mitigate the risk of work-related stressors. For example, the level of role autonomy that somebody has, the level of change in the organisation, workload, working patterns etc, all of these things can adversely impact employees’ mental health. They also need to provide opportunities for employees to proactively manage their mental health generally. In other words, employers need to consider what their preventative strategy is, and be clear on what they can and can’t affect.
The second thing is that employers need to know who their employees are alongside the factors inside and outside of their work that are known to affect mental health and well-being. For example, mental health-related absence is really important for employers to understand.
Mental health-related absence is the biggest cause of lost working days in the UK. While some of this absence will be related to workplace stressors, the reality is that we all have lives outside of work and our personal circumstances can significantly contribute to our mental health. Challenging personal circumstances can also make us more susceptible or less able to cope with work-related stressors. So, just looking at the workplace, and ignoring factors impacting people outside of work, is never going to give you the full picture.
There are many examples of challenging personal circumstances. Someone’s housing situation, financial situation, relationships, and caring responsibilities are all factors that can contribute to declining mental health. As an employer, if you don’t know the issues that are affecting your employee’s mental health, then how can you put the right solutions in place?
Lastly, it’s important to specifically recognise what employees are struggling with. All too often employers will categorise mental health into one generic umbrella term, or at most will separate it into stress, anxiety and depression. The issue with that is it totally ignores all the other mental health-related conditions that don’t sit comfortably into one of those three categories. If an employer doesn’t know what people are struggling with, then how can they provide appropriate support?
As I said earlier, mental health is a spectrum, and the support provided needs to reflect that spectrum of needs. Whilst many employers are taking steps in the right direction, there’s still a lot more that can be done to take a more sophisticated approach to support employee mental health.
What are the tell-tale signs that an employee is suffering from declining mental health and at what point should an employer take action?
This is quite a difficult question to answer because it’s not always easy to spot when someone is struggling, particularly with increased levels of remote working. In different types of mental health difficulties, you will find there are different indications that something is not okay. It’s really the role of specialists and experts to assess and spot these difficulties.
What’s most important is to be observant and create an environment where people feel safe enough to be honest. They need to feel comfortable so they can share if something is wrong and seek help.
In building relationships, and being an observant manager, then that person is much more likely to be able to see if somebody is struggling. It might be that they’re doing something that they didn’t before, or they’re not doing something that they previously did. This could involve anything from working late to stopping exercising or putting off work tasks.
Employers must build relationships in the first place – spend time with colleagues and be observant of any changes in behaviour. Then it’s a case of really trusting your instinct and appropriately approaching an individual to see if they want to talk, or if you can help in any way.
What are some top tips leaders can implement to create long-term employee mental health support in the workplace?
The first one is about understanding the workforce. There will be lots of different needs because people will have very different lives inside and outside of work. Understanding who people are and what it is that’s affecting them is the first important step to providing appropriate support.
Secondly, break down your approach to focus on different aspects of creating a mentally healthy workplace. You might want to consider your preventative approach such as building the mental health literacy of the workforce. One of the things we’ve developed at Rightsteps is open access online materials developed by mental health professionals that help build people’s understanding of how they can look after their mental health. This allows organisations to speak in a common language with a common understanding of mental health. It also helps people to understand the role that work plays both positively and potentially negatively on an individual’s mental health and allows the opportunity to make changes to the workplace accordingly.
The third thing surrounds the cultural environment. Is it a psychologically safe environment to work in? Do people feel comfortable talking about mental health generally and talking about their mental health if they’re struggling? Then you need to consider your reactive approach. So, if somebody is struggling, what solutions can you put in place to support those individuals?
The final tip is to do your due diligence. With the growth in importance that’s being given to mental health in the workplace, there’s been a huge increase in the number of businesses that are wanting to buy well-being products and services. Whilst there are some great ones out there, there are many that have very little evidence behind them. So, what is the evidence base for the support that you are signposting your employees to? As well as this, consider how your employee’s data will be looked after. Mental health is a highly personal and sensitive subject so make sure that the organisations that you work with have the highest data security standards in place.
The Rightsteps Winter Pressures Guide for HR and wellbeing leads is available at: https://www.rightsteps.co.uk/winter-wellbeing-guide
Joanne is the editor for Workplace Wellbeing Professional and has a keen interest in promoting the safety and wellbeing of the global workforce. After earning a bachelor's degree in English literature and media studies, she taught English in China and Vietnam for two years. Before joining Work Well Pro, Joanne worked as a marketing coordinator for luxury property, where her responsibilities included blog writing, photography, and video creation.