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Putting employee wellbeing at the top of the agenda

Sophie Holland, Research Manager at strategic insight agency Opinium, suggests a few things that employers can do to help their employees after research reveals that over half of working adults have experienced poor mental wellbeing over the last 12 months in the UK and the US.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the lives of us all over the last year. Many of us have needed to adapt to working from home, home-schooling children and generally entertaining ourselves at home. In the absence of socialisation, an acute awareness of ourselves and how we are feeling has emerged. The importance of mental health has been growing steadily over the last few years, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated this further. This increased focus on mental health has also perpetuated into the workplace, whereby it has become and important topic of conversation for employers and employees alike.

Mental wellbeing is something we all have and need to look after. Research from insight agency Opinium shows that in the UK and the US, over half (62% and 55% respectively) of working adults have experienced poor mental wellbeing over the last 12 months. Employers have a role to play here in helping employees maintain good mental wellbeing as well as helping support them in times of struggle. Below we’ll explore the current challenges facing UK and Us workers when it comes to mental wellbeing and how employers can help.

Time off for mental health? No way!

Amongst those who have experienced poor mental health in the past 12 months, few have actually taken time off work to rest and recover, and this is more accentuated in the UK than the US. In the UK, just 28% of those who experienced poor mental health took time off work, versus 46% of those in the US.

So why are people not taking time off work when they are experiencing poor mental health?

The main reason for not taking time off across both the UK and the US is feeling that it wasn’t bad enough to warrant a day off (35% UK, 37% US). Worryingly, the third most common reason for not taking time off work in both markets was because they didn’t think their mental health problem was a valid reason to take time off work (25% UK, 26% US). Even those who do take time off for their mental wellbeing feel internalised stigma. More than half (57% UK, 56% US) felt guilty for taking time off and half (48% UK, 52% US) felt the pressure to come back to work too early.

What can employers do to help?

The underlying stigma and culture surrounding mental health is something that employers can facilitate great change in. But to help do this they must act on mental health in the workplace in genuine and helpful ways.

Currently employee belief that their employer takes their mental health and wellbeing seriously is low; almost half (49%) of US employees don’t feel their employer take this seriously, and this is similar with UK employees (46%). Any actions employers do take must therefore be maintained and developed so that they are not seen as ‘token’ exercises.

There are a multitude of things employers can do to help address the underlying issues with the culture and narrative surrounding mental health, we’ve listed some of these below:

1. Talk about mental health

There are so many ways employer can help normalise conversations about mental health. One idea might be organising team chats, where employees can get together and talk about how they are getting on and what they’re doing at the moment that’s helping them maintain good mental health. Perhaps it could even be arranged for a mental health professional to come in and talk to/ train your team about mental health awareness. Another invaluable action here is encouraging senior members of the team to share stories of their struggles with mental health if they feel comfortable. Not only will this help open the conversation about mental health more generally, it will also help reassure less senior team members that poor mental health is something we all experience from time to time and it’s not something that will jeopardise their career, making them more likely to reach out for help when they need it.

2. Listen to employees Get feedback from employees specifically on mental wellbeing to better understand their needs and what will help support them. This could be via an open forum or via an anonymous survey. Place this feedback at the heart of your mental wellbeing strategy, using it to drive future initiatives and address any issues raised. You could also use this feedback to track your progress and help keep employee mental wellbeing at the top of your agenda.

3. Invest in mental wellbeing initiatives There are a multitude of initiatives offered by organisations, but it is vital that you introduce initiatives that are going to help your employees, and this is why employee feedback is so important. Some of the best-in-class mental wellbeing initiatives identified from our research are flexible working hours, remote working, space to take breaks and exercise classes. Employees who used these initiatives had higher mental wellbeing than those who did not.

4. Invest in a mental wellbeing team Have a team who are responsible for focusing on and supporting employee mental wellbeing in your organisation. Arrange regular meetings where you can discuss potential future initiatives to help support employee wellbeing, but also discuss any issues which need action.

5. Take a personalised approach When it comes to mental wellbeing, everyone’s needs are different. What some people find helpful in supporting their mental wellbeing will not be helpful to others. That’s why it’s vital to have individual conversations about mental wellbeing as well as gaining mass feedback.

These are just a few things that employers can do to foster a culture where employees feel safe and able to open up about their mental wellbeing and reach out when they might be struggling. Mental wellbeing is only moving higher up the agenda as the years pass, so it is vital that employers take steps help their employees to thrive, both inside and outside of work.

If you’d like to find out more about our research with UK and US employees, please follow the links below:


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