Supporting positive mental health in the workplace

Talking about mental health is becoming more and more commonplace. But we still need to keep doing more to promote well-being at work for everyone.

As part of our #AAT PowerUp social mobility campaign we spoke to Vicki Cockman, Workplace Lead at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England about why and how we should all support and encourage positive mental health in the workplace. 

Why is awareness around positive mental health in the workplace important?

We all have mental health, both positive and negative. An active work life presents challenges that can help us learn and grow, but the workplace can also be a place where we experience unhealthy levels of stress that can impact our mental health.

“Over half of us have experienced a mental health issue where work was a contributing factor.”

As well as being part of the duty of care of an employer, creating a supportive culture and having an open, stigma-free approach to mental health can also help to create sustainable businesses.

The best practice for embedding this sort of culture starts with taking a ‘whole organisation’ approach to mental health. In this approach, wellbeing is woven into every policy and process and there is a focus on creating the conditions for people to thrive, empowering people to recognise when a colleague is struggling and intervene early, and ensuring pathways to further support are clear.

Some mental health in the workplace stats: 

  • women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men
  • evidence suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions
  • better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year.

How can you spot signs of declining mental health in others? 

Certain changes in behaviour are the key thing to look out for here. Physical symptoms might be frequent complaints of stomach upsets and headaches, tiredness and being run down, lack of care over appearance and sudden weight change.

Emotional or behavioural signs of mental ill health can include irritability, withdrawal from activities or conversations, indecision and loss of concentration, argumentative or erratic behaviour, and a loss of confidence and humour.

In the workplace, if someone’s struggling with their mental health, we might notice increased errors, missed deadlines, or negative changes to working relationships with colleagues. Employees who are usually present and punctual might start to arrive late or take more sickness absence.

What can you do to help others if you see signs of declining mental health? 

If you do see someone struggling in the workplace, letting them know your door is open if they want to talk is the first step – this can be really powerful. When having a conversation make sure it happens in a private, neutral space. Give yourself plenty of time and try to minimise any possible distractions.

Approach the conversation non-judgmentally. Explain that you’ve noticed changes in their behaviour, you are concerned, and are wondering whether there might be anything you can do to help. Listen to the person in front of you, be empathetic, keep your body language open and ask open questions to invite them to tell you more.

Depending on the issue, you can then recommend they seek further support. This might be through an Employee Assistance Programme if one is available, self-help information if appropriate, or a visit to their GP. Make sure that the conversation doesn’t end there – check in with the person at a later date to see how they are feeling and reassure them that you are still there to talk.

What steps can you take to improve your own mental health? 

Practising self-care is something we can all do to support our mental health. This is different for everyone, but it can be as simple as paying attention to our diet and ensuring we get enough exercise.

Meditation, mindfulness, reducing alcohol consumption, drinking enough water, making sure to get enough sleep, spending time with loved ones or partaking in hobbies are all part of self-care. Simply recognising this can have a big impact in itself. 

Could you tell us a bit about your first aider programme and who it’s for? 

Mental Health First Aid is the mental health equivalent of physical first aid. Mental Health First Aiders are trained to spot the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues such as anxiety and depression and effectively guide a person towards the right support, be that self-help information, and Employee Assistance Programme or professional services. 

In the same way that a physical first aider is not a doctor or surgeon, a Mental Health First Aider is not a therapist or counsellor but is there to offer initial support through non-judgmental listening and guidance.

Through our training we want to improve the mental health of the nation by breaking down the stigma surrounding mental ill health and helping more people access support measures when they need it.

We want to create a society where mental health is as important as physical health. By starting in the workplace, we hope to drive a widespread culture of well being by reinvesting in communities who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford our training and by building the resilience of the next generation through our youth training.

Key takeaways 

  • It is the duty of care of an employer to create a supportive culture and a stigma-free approach to mental health. 
  • Focusing on employee well-being is likely to reduce presenteeism and absenteeism and increase employee engagement and productivity.
  • Changes in behaviour are the key thing to look out for to spot a decline in someone’s mental health. 
  • The best thing you can do is to let people know your door is always open if they want to talk.  
  • To look after your own mental health practice self-care . Everyone’s idea of self-care is different. Take a look at some of these self-care ideas from Stylist magazine

More information and support  

  • MHFA England’s Take 10 Together Toolkit has some great guidance on how people can hold an open, supportive conversation. This is freely available to download from the MHFA England website. 
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has developed a range of resources, including our ‘Address Your Stress’ Toolkit, to raise awareness of the small things we can all do to support our mental health and re-balance the impact of stress in our lives.

The Samaritans provide emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide. This includes job-related stress or overwork, relationship problems and financial worries. Call them on 116 123. 

Further reading:

Sophie Cross is the Editor of Freelancer Magazine and a freelance writer and marketer at Thoughtfully.

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