Why your employees need mental health first aid now more than ever

Andrew Heath · July 3, 2020

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2018 and has been updated.

Prior to lockdown, mental health related illness was the most common form of sickness absence. The statistics around mental health in the workplace weren’t particularly easy reading before Covid-19.

Figures published by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2019 reported a staggering 12.8 million working days were lost as a result of work-related stress, anxiety and depression over the previous year.

Deloitte reported earlier this year that poor mental health is costing UK businesses up to £45billion every year.

Poor mental health costing UK businesses £45billion each year

We are yet to see the impact of Covid-19. But it is almost certainly going to accelerate this complex problem.

What impact is the pandemic having on employee mental health?

A report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) indicates that the pandemic (and measures taken by the government to control it, such as the lockdown and social distancing) will have a significant impact on the mental health of employees, with the implications felt for many months, even years down the line.

Employees need access to mental health first aidPsychiatrists are warning of a “tsunami” of mental illness as a direct result of the lockdown, says a report by the BBC.

The pandemic has touched society in many ways. Personal resilience is being tested to the maximum. Employees have been forced to work from home. Many have been furloughed. There is a lot of stress and anxiety, and a lot of concern about the future of work.

Employees have had to adapt to a new way of working. For a considerable number of employees this has been a juggling act, balancing work and family obligations. Remote workers have had to adapt and quickly get used to new ways of communicating.

A leading mental health first aider training company (Mental Health First Aid England, MHFA) is calling on the hundreds of thousands of people it has trained to join the national effort to tackle the invisible impact of coronavirus. In particular, the organisation is focusing on how employees can keep mentally healthy while working from home.

MHFA have put together a helpful toolkit of self-care resources on their website to give remote workers guidance on protecting their mental health while working remotely.

The future of work

Now as lockdown eases and people start making their way back into the workplace, life will be very different with a whole range of hygiene and new safety measures in place. But the virus hasn’t disappeared. Many will continue to work from home.

Of those going back to the office, some will be fearful about catching the virus. Others will be desperate to get back some semblance of normality. Some employees will be grieving the loss of a loved one to Covid-19.

What the future workplace will look like, no-one really knows. This uncertainty is creating a great deal of anxiety, worry and stress. In a U.S survey by mental health provider, Ginger, 7 out of 10 employees, said the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most stressful time of their entire professional career.

70% of employees say the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their career

These are challenging times and the mental health of the workforce is fragile.

Mental wellbeing at work significantly impacts employee engagement and performance. Combine work-related stress with poor levels of support and the cost to business is huge. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. As we move into a post-pandemic world, employees will require support in many different ways.

Some employers are ahead of the curve and already have a robust ‘mental wellbeing at work’ strategy in place. Others are taking steps to address the issue, but there are still significant numbers of employers who have no strategy for supporting mental wellbeing at work at all. In these unprecedented times, some sort of mental health strategy at work to build resilience is vital for business success.

What exactly is mental health?

Mental health is part of our overall health and refers to how we feel, think and behave. It includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Many people associate poor mental health with severe mental health problems, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

However, mental illness covers a broad spectrum of feelings and behaviours, such as feeling overloaded, burnt out or overwhelmed, and unable to cope. For more information on what mental health problems are, see the guide from mental health charity, Mind here.

What is work-related stress?

According to HSE, work-related stress is defined as “a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.”

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounts for 44% of all work-related illness. The main causes are workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.

Almost half of all work-related illness is due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression

Other factors include low pay, organisational changes, job insecurity, discrimination, violence (i.e. towards teachers, social workers, housing service staff, police and prison workers), lack of value and respect, and role uncertainty.

Why your business needs mental health first-aiders

Employers who take steps to support mental health at work reap the rewards of a happier, more productive workforce. The Centre for Mental Health argues that simple steps to improve mental health in the workplace enables employers to save significantly on the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism.

In the current Covid-19 climate, employees need the support of their employers more than ever before. Those employers who ignore the problem are risking the health of their employees, the potential success of their business and the health of the wider economy.

A recent survey by the Office of National Statistics on personal and economic wellbeing in Great Britain found the following:

“Between 20 March and 30 March 2020, almost half (49.6%) of people in Great Britain reported “high” (rating 6 to 10) anxiety; this was sharply elevated compared with the end of 2019 (21%), and equates to over 25 million people.

In March this year almost half of the people in the UK reported high levels of anxiety

The Mental Health Foundation believe workplace mental health should not be seen as a burden and a cost, but employers should instead be recognising the value and potential gain of protecting workers and improving mental health at work. Stressful working conditions are detrimental to employee wellbeing at work.

One of the biggest challenges for employers is in recognising the early warning signs of mental health issues in the workplace and implementing policies and practices that work towards prevention. Many men and women suffer in silence at work, feeling unable to seek help from their manager or colleagues.

It is even more vital now to regularly check in with employees and offer the right support. Employers also need to develop a better understanding of the issues people face when working from home.

So, what can employers do?

Mental Health First Aid is an internationally recognised training course. The training is designed to teach people how to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and guide someone to access appropriate support.

Awareness training is key. A mental health first aider is trained to recognise the early signs and symptoms of mental ill health and is able to start a supportive conversation with a colleague who may be experiencing mental health problems or emotional distress.

As many as 91 per cent of managers say that what they do affects the wellbeing of their staff, yet less than a quarter of managers have received any training on how to deal with mental health problems at work.

Find more useful MHFA resources here.

How can employers support staff? 

As we spend a significant amount of our time working, mental health is an issue employers need to address. Work-related stress can have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of employees, and employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work. Even when the root cause of an employee’s mental ill-health is not work-related, work can still exacerbate mental health problems.

Things employers can do to support mental health at work:

  • Facilitate building deeper connections between workers as they adapt to remote working
  • Develop a clear policy and formal action plan on supporting employee mental health
  • Offer additional support as employees adjust to new remote working regimes and/or as they return to the workplace
  • Support local and national campaigns in the workplace to raise awareness about mental health issues and signpost people to access mental health services
  • Include regular features on mental health in your work newsletter
  • Encourage employees to become active and share their stories about mental health issues and how it is affecting their work. Removing the stigma around mental health and weeding out negative attitudes is key
  • Train managers to understand the common problems in the workplace and in remote settings that are likely to contribute to stress and mental health problems and equip them with the skills to listen, support and signpost staff to the help they need
  • Nominate one or two employees to train as mental health first aiders

Within every business there are people suffering and Covid-19 has added even more pressure. It is time businesses took action to minimise the stigma of mental health problems and put a stop to the culture of silence around mental wellbeing at work.

Businesses need to improve openness and education. They will need to promote policies that advocate better support for employees, especially those most at risk of workplace stress. Mental health first aiders are a good place to start. Happy, healthy employees are integral to business success.

Why not start by finding out exactly how your employees are feeling? An employee engagement survey will help you understand the issues your employees are facing. With the right tools, line managers can gain a deeper understanding of common mental health issues and help to prevent mental struggles.

Employee wellbeing guide