Mind over matter – wellness in the workplace

An astonishing third of British people feel that Brexit has negatively affected their mental health, according to a survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psycholtherapy (BACP).

Whether you are Leave or Remain, no one is happy with our current political climate and such huge external upheaval can severely affect productivity in the workplace and office harmony.

So what should accountancy practice owners, and businesses more widely, do to ensure the good mental health of their employees?

Supportive workplace

“To create a positive culture it’s important to place good mental health into a larger context of wellbeing,” says Ian Thomas, CEO of Trivallis, a housing charity.

“Employers may already have wellbeing programmes to deal with things that can be ‘seen’ – based around physical health.” But as Thomas points out, because mental health is more ‘unseen’, it can sometimes be ignored or just forgotten.

“Culturally, if staff know that the employer is aware and sympathetic, it makes talking about mental health much easier. It’s important too that managers at every level understand what the workplace stresses and strains are within the job areas they are responsible for.”

Focus on these three things

  • Firstly, ensure you offer a positive place to work in from a physical environment point of view (the spaces people work in).
  • Secondly, ensure the culture is positive; this can include a range of initiatives, many of them inexpensive.
  • Thirdly, have processes in place for when there is a problem.

With this sequence in mind, you anticipate and reduce poor mental health in the first place, and you also have good systems for recovery.   

The key, Thomas says, is about how you treat staff.

“There’s a tendency sometimes to think that employees are there merely to get the business moving. But you have to have a compassionate view of the workforce – they are not just for the business’s benefit, and we are all human beings.”

The practical steps

In practice, what can employers do?

“We have flexible working polices, and encourage alternative ways of working,” Thomas says.

Whatever your practice looks like, it’s probable that you can find some degree of flexibility – having some staff coming in early or leaving late if they prefer means you can offer longer contact hours, for example.

Flexibility towards staff can benefit your clients too, rather than sticking to rigid hours simply because it’s the way things have always been done.  

More substantially, “we have mental health first aiders who we’ve trained from inside the business.”

This has been really effective, Thomas says. “It’s upped the profile of mental health at a time when people are now, finally, talking about it externally; and it’s one of our core priorities.” 

Ways of being

“The most important thing is for people at work to feel that they matter,” says Brigid Bowen, founder and director of Compassionate Mental Health,

“and that they have a purpose beyond just sending emails or doing things for other people. Being valued is essential for mental health. Pre-empt conflict and problems by having an open culture that’s relational.”

For Bowen, part of the problem is that mental health can be a label, and the presence of that label is what, in the past, has led to stigma.

“I don’t like the psychiatric label or the belief that someone who thinks a bit differently has to declare some kind of difference,’” says Bowen. “Having an office culture that supports good mental health shouldn’t have to make people define as disabled in order to support them best.”

Identify employees who are at risk

Bowen has had experience of recovery from a mental health crisis herself when younger. “But it’s essential to point out that mental health issues are not just about what’s diagnosed and needs prescriptions. It’s everyday things too – like someone who’s been recently bereaved, and how to make space for that.”

In offices that don’t have a culture of understanding good mental health, “this can be terrible – people don’t know how to handle grief.”

Often, articles on mental health in the workplace will focus on the well-worn statistic that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental health problems at some point in our lifetimes.

For Bowen, “it’s time to move away from this. In reality, 4 in 4 of us will experience something that will cause difficulties with our mental health: illness, divorce, debt, family issues.”

Well-intentioned actions can sometimes create an “us and them” scenario.

Culture and thoughtfulness

As well as being owner of Bienestar, a counselling and hypnotherapy organisation, Jenni Donno is also Director at 1 Accounts Online. Making her perfectly placed to discuss wellness in the workplace whilst considering the specific needs and challenges of accountants.

Donno emphasises that by including good mental health as part of your overall strategy, practices can hold onto excellent staff, reduce turnover, create positive workplaces and improve work life balance.

“Engage employees in the design and delivery of a wellbeing programme,” she says. “Employers need to show their employees that they really care about their wellbeing. In this environment they are likely to have less time off or leave for another job. Lead by example, to show that health and wellbeing is important and valued.”

Talk about mental health

Donno agrees that when talking about good mental health, it’s essential to see it as part of a wider wellness programme.

“Ask someone in to talk about healthy living, perhaps a ‘lunch and learn’ session. Health coaches can talk about nutritional goals, daily water intake, supplements, stress and sleep.”

Provide health assessments for your team, she says, “or provide books and resources on health and wellness.” Make healthy living part of your culture. “Create a wellness award to reward employees for achieving health and activity goals.”

Finally, use your skills as an accountancy practice to benefit your employees.

“71% of employees say their top source of stress is related to personal finances,” Donno says, “which can result in both physical and mental distress.” To address this, “host sessions related to finances, such as pension schemes and investments.” 

Mental health matters – take-outs for business

Get the environment right

  • “Happy and healthy employees are proven to result in a more productive workplace, with less sickness and staff turnover,” says Jenni Donno.
  • “Employees often value happiness over pay and benefits; research has shown that the most important factors in employee happiness are the enjoyment in their role, trust and work-life balance.”

Don’t stigmatise mental health

  • “It’s probably at least 1 in 3,” says Ian Thomas. But it’s difficult to turn it into a statistic and unhelpful to do so.
  • “When things are in wider contexts (such as Brexit), there can be long-term effects that are hard to quantify. Furthermore, some people will move in an out of mental health states. The key is to look at the causes and acknowledge it can affect anyone.”

Get the culture right, and offer support

  • “Not everyone can really love their work,” says Brigid Bowen, “so how can you make people love it a little bit more?
  • Focus on shared values and purpose. If you don’t feel there’s something bigger than the day-to-day, it can lead to problems in the long term. And these are problems you can anticipate.”

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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