Health in our workplaces used to be a simple matter and, generally, it was one our employers felt had nothing to do with them. In the distant past, you could smoke at your desk. A salad bar appears in the cafeteria. A disused storage room is turned into a gym. Free fruit becomes available and someone in a tracksuit appears at your desk with an offer to pay for a bicycle if you use it to get to the office.
In late January 2016, Maudsley Learning assembled a group of professionals to assess how industry is looking not at our blood pressure but our mental health.
‘Why Mental Health Matters 2016: Managing Employee Wellbeing in the Workplace’ is the third annual Maudsley Learning conference for HR and wellbeing practitioners. It found that a shift has taken place with a number of progressive employers that have grasped the benefits of focusing on the mental health of their employees.
A theme emerged during the day: change will only come with committed leadership that cares about the mental health of the organisation’s employees and this must be supported through all lines of management because it has an impact on shareholders, customers and employees. Many organisations have started the process by working at an individual level to help employees understand and manage their own mental health, however there is still a gap in training managers to have the understanding and skills to destigmatise discussions about mental health.
Dame Carol Black, Expert Adviser on Health and Work at the Department of Health, England and Public Health England, said, “If you get the leadership right, and I don’t mean the CEO ticking a box, this is going to be sustainable. You need a board member who reports to the board on this just in the same way that the financial situation of a company is reported to the board.
“Then you have to help line managers at all levels as they too need supporting. Organisation culture is crucially important.”
Richard Heron has experience of working with BP’s large number of employees around the world in often remote and challenging environments. As Vice-President and Chief Medical Officer, as well as the President of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, he is very aware of how much a company needs its employees to keep the show running and that it should feel safe to ask for help. “The healthy choice should be the easy choice. If it is hard to find ear defenders, people won’t use them – when you engineer out risks, and make protection readily available you prevent harm to people”
He added, “A healthy plant is a place of work you go everyday and your health should not be adversely affected by doing that, in fact, in good work, your health should be enhanced.”
Spotting a problem in the first place can be an issue. “Many people don’t recognise that they have a mental health problem. They might well think “So I am a bit stressed and a bit more shouty, but isn’t that normal?” said Neil Greenberg, Professor of Defence Mental Health at King’s College. “Those who do recognise a problem often don’t want to seek help as they feel they are not the people they thought they are and worry what their colleagues will think.
“Stigma is a big reason why many people don’t ask for help and this stigma is a societal issue.”
Lan Tu, Chair of Maudsley Learning at Work, looked back on what emerged during the conference. “It was a very successful day and the theme of the importance of leadership as key to creating a workplace where mental health can be safely discussed came up again and again. At Maudsley Learning at Work, we help leaders and managers to identify issues within their teams and how to understand, manage and promote mental health as an integral part of the workplace.”