By Osato Evbuomwan
Every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide. The World Health Organisation estimates that about 264 million people suffer from depression, around half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, and people with severe mental health disorders die 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population.
Those are some pretty bleak statistics. And yet, mental health remains one of the most neglected areas of health globally. With the onset of the pandemic, the picture is even bleaker; almost 42% of respondents globally report that their mental health has declined since the beginning of the outbreak.
While the bulk of the burden may rest on governments to improve mental health service delivery, the reality is that on average, countries spend less than 2% of their health budgets on mental health, with minimal focus on preventative measures. Since work-related stress is one of the leading stressors for people globally, it makes sense for organisations to make mental health a priority, especially because employee burnout can be costly for business.
So how can we support mental health in the workplace? It is not enough to pay lip service with grand declarations of support and best practice or to tick the box with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that rarely get utilised. Organisations need to do more — and not just during stressful periods like the pandemic, but all the time, including when everything looks fine.
Here are 12 ways to really help:
1. Ask. Ask employees what affects them the most, what causes them the most stress and what they are most worried about. And then, ask them how they want to be helped and what support they need to juggle work, life and their mental health. Anonymous surveys are a good way to get this information, but also explore focus groups, where people are encouraged to share and discuss in a trusted space. Most importantly, don’t just ask the questions; implement changes based on the feedback. When employees feel heard and when they see action being taken, it builds trust, increases commitment and makes them feel safer and more secure in their work environment.
2. Create systems and safe spaces for people to report if they do not feel supported enough or if they are working under conditions that threaten their mental health. Most people do not talk about their mental distress because of the associated stigma. Some also do not speak up for fear of being victimised at work or even potentially losing their jobs, so they continue to push on until they crash. It is critical for workplaces to create environments that allow their employees to speak openly about their mental health challenges without repercussions or ridicule.
3. Create awareness and train employees on how to identify and address depression. In the workplace, co-workers are the ‘first line of defence’ against depression. People are more likely to build trust-based and close relationships with their colleagues than with their line managers. Therefore, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to recognise symptoms of depression and encouraging them to keep an eye out for it will allow early detection and improve response efficacy. Literally, get employees to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
4. Build psychological safety by encouraging senior leaders and managers to be vulnerable. One of the ways a manager can build trust in his or her team is to be human. Being human requires us to be vulnerable. If leaders can be vulnerable about sharing their own challenges with mental health, it sends a message to employees that it is safe to do the same. This way, they are also more likely to get the support they need.
5. Embrace the concept of mental health days. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we are not able to bring our best selves to work. There might be factors in our personal lives that may be overwhelming and get in the way of full concentration at work. Anxiety, exhaustion and lethargy are just as detrimental to productivity as being ill. Because of this, we must build mental health days into leave plans the same way we account for sick days.
6. Pay close attention to employees’ working hours. Sometimes, it may be necessary in the short term for employees to work longer hours if there’s a critical need. But in general, pay attention to how often they are working long hours and make an effort to understand why. Emails being sent or responded to at odd hours may be a symptom. Check in with such employees and find ways to resolve the issue, whether by empowering them to manage their time better or intervening to improve less than optimal working conditions. People need to rest and recharge. A burnt-out employee is a top candidate for mental health disorders and is no use to the organisation in the long term.
7. Identify managers and leaders who do not model behaviours that support mental health and take measures to get them to do so. Managers who consistently give unrealistic deadlines cause undue stress for their direct reports. Managers who do not respect boundaries and who make it difficult for employees to express their concerns contribute to mental health issues. Managers who demand long working hours from their direct reports, whether explicitly or implicitly, just because they work long hours or on weekends, are also a danger to mental well-being. Equally, managers who are disorganised and create a lot of uncertainty within their teams need to be called to order.
8. Tie managers’ performance to employees’ well-being. As part of manager evaluations, assess the feeling of well-being among the people they lead and work with. Just as we implement 360-degree feedback for performance on the job, we must build in mechanisms that help evaluate how well a manager is helping employees balance well-being and work. It’s not enough for managers to be great at their jobs — they must also be great at developing, empowering and above all, caring for their people.
9. Reward and recognise the right behaviours. Call out people who show up for themselves and for their colleagues, who give additional support, who champion self-care with the aim of improving their productivity and who cater to the whole person, and not just their work persona. Celebrate those who do a great job of setting and asserting boundaries in a respectful but firm manner — people who are deliberate about bringing their best selves to work and who give others room and support to do the same.
10. Create space and time for fun, humour and team bonding. All work and no play make for a very disengaged team. Being able to build camaraderie through team bonding exercises, retreats, virtual coffees and other non-work activities builds trust and creates more open and honest work relationships which support employee well-being. If people spend most of their time at work or with their co-workers, they should feel like they are among friends and family — people they can trust to support them in times of need.
11. Create internal support groups. Beyond EAPs, consider creating support groups — smaller, more intimate groups of people with similar challenges or life experiences to support each other. A support group for new mums, new dads, new employees, or for employees who may be dealing with mental health issues might be more beneficial for those who may not trust the process of speaking to therapists. Sometimes, people just want to know that they are not experiencing their challenges alone and also want to be able to share them with people they can trust in a judgement-free space. This initiative can be facilitated by employees themselves to foster a sense of safety.
12. Include coverage for mental health and provide other support services. As part of employee benefits, consider options like access to licensed therapists, support for childcare, on-site crèches, on-site gyms, personal assistant services for booking, planning, shopping and other routine tasks that could become a source of stress. Other things to explore include nap rooms, break rooms that allow for self-care rituals like meditation, a monthly self-care pack… the list is endless. Just ask employees what will help or what they need, and you’ll be surprised just how simple some of the solutions might be.
For any organisation that is serious about putting people first, supporting mental health and well-being is a non-negotiable.
While employees have the responsibility to take care of their general health and well-being, the onus is on the organisation to create an enabling environment for them to do so. Companies that do this well, thrive in the long run.
Osato Evbuomwan is a member of The Room and a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. Creator of “The Talking Circle”, she is on a quest to cultivate a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.