Work designed well is good for mental health. Simon Blake from MHFA England explains what this means and how employers should approach it.
Accenture’s 2019 study into young workers’ mental health found that by the time they are 30, 95% of employees in the UK will have been touched by mental health challenges – either their own or those of a friend.
Fast forward three years (the duration of an average degree in the UK) and our young people have lived through a global pandemic, a war that is beamed direct to their devices in real time, a cost-of-living crisis and a climate crisis.
I am fast approaching 50 and have been working full time for almost three decades. The changes to the way we work – and wider global issues – are really big and significant for all of us, and how we deal with them will be different from person to person.
Mental health challenges among young people
The Centre for Mental Health predict that 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children in England will need support for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders in the coming months and years.
So, it is no surprise that 38% of recent graduates surveyed in a study by Accenture in 2020 described themselves as currently having a mental health challenge.
ISE’s Development Survey this year showed that 64% of employers said that the number of graduates and apprentices with mental health issues has increased.
For business leaders, the need to support everyone’s mental health – graduates, non-graduates, apprentices and experienced workers alike– has never been greater.
The evidence for action is clear, and the need for investment is stark. Deloitte’s 2022 report estimated that mental ill health costs UK businesses £56 billion per annum, but with relatively modest investment this can change. The same report shows more than a fivefold return on investment for employers, with every £1 spent on staff wellbeing giving an average return of £5.30.
Then there is the human cost, the cost of poor mental health and lives lost to suicide – around 200 young people die by suicide in England every year.
Support for workplace wellbeing
Mental Health First Aid England® is a social enterprise and over the past 15 years we have worked with over 20,000 organisations.
Understanding about workplace wellbeing has developed enormously during that time. It is unequivocally clear that we need a whole organisation approach to promoting the wellbeing of the whole workforce and that wellbeing and high performance go hand in hand.
Positive workplace cultures create psychological safety, where everyone feels a sense of belonging, feels valued, feels their job has purpose, that the workload is manageable and that they have the tools and relationships to thrive.
Diversity and inclusion
There is no one size fits all, but whatever the approach, it is absolutely vital that diversity and inclusion is embedded into your workforce wellbeing strategy. This in turn should underpin your workforce strategy.
Equity and fairness are an important part of workforce wellbeing. What people get paid, the development and promotion opportunities, who gets recognised and heard for their (or other people’s) contributions, and does everyone feel they express themselves freely are central to a positive culture.
Brave and inclusive leaders will continually be working in partnership with their teams to develop inclusive cultures that support wellbeing. And they will recognise that doing so goes right to the heart of our business strategies for success.
How to design work for good mental health
1) Be explicit about your commitment to equity, inclusion, and wellbeing
This should be a core pillar of your business strategy and means ensuring that you have diverse teams at all levels.
Show and tell your staff that you are working hard to create an inclusive culture and a diverse workforce, and that you have a plan to eradicate inequalities including pay gaps.
In our monthly all staff meetings, we focus part of the session on how we are progressing against our KPIs associated with gender and race equity to ensure our staff know we are actively working to close the gap.
2) Build inclusion and wellbeing into your people and performance strategy
Make sure it is embedded into job design, onboarding processes, one-to-ones and health checks.
An organisation’s approach to wellbeing shouldn’t be considered in isolation. Through our consultancy services, we help organisations connect wellbeing with all areas of wellbeing policies from equity, diversity and inclusion, leadership, recruitment and ways of working through to learning and development. To find out how we can support you, email firstname.lastname@example.org
3) Managers play a critical role in creating working environments
They allow people to feel seen heard and valued. Their influence can shape a team and workplace, supporting good employee mental health and wellbeing, as well as an organisation’s productivity and performance.
As part of My Whole Self 2023 (our workplace culture change campaign), we developed a free Manager’s Toolkit to equip them with the knowledge and confidence needed to support the mental health of their teams. You can download it, alongside other free resources, here.
4) Listen, engage and consult as part of the DNA of your organisation
Employee resource groups can help to create direct pathways to senior management and help them understand what their staff need and want.
5) Keep a laser sharp focus on the importance of social connection
As we navigate new ways of working this is especially important for graduates and young workers.
We must recognise that our individual lived experiences will drive what feels good and helpful for each of us. Whilst working from home works for some, for others, the need for connectiveness and community is vital for early career progression.
At MHFA England®, we are clear that some anchor days are needed to help build relationships and foster creativity, but we also embrace flexibility and homeworking for those that need it.
We are constantly evaluating ways to feel connected so that we can find solutions that work for everyone.
6) Implement a mentoring or buddying system
Organisations that provide professionally supportive work environments can expect to attract talent and experience greater levels of retention.
Providing mentors to less experienced employees promotes their skill development and social ties with the organisation in a way more meaningful than job training.
Mentors also report a greater sense of purpose and connectedness to their roles and organisations.
Mentoring programmes also have the best record at making diversity a reality. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations found that mentoring programs boosted minority representation at the management level by 9% to 24% (compared to -2% to 18% with other diversity initiatives).
The same study found that mentoring programmes also dramatically improved promotion and retention rates for minorities and women—15% to 38% as compared to non-mentored employees.
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