Tackling rising anxiety at work

In the second of two articles on staff health issues for Business Reporter, Bob Andrews explains how to ensure that a mental wellbeing policy genuinely works for your employees.

It goes without saying that managers and employees have been stressed during the pandemic, which, for millions, has not only disrupted their professional lives but had profound consequences at home too. A recent Benenden Health survey revealed that more than six in ten UK managers suffered COVID-19 burnout at work during the height of the pandemic, with 20% considering quitting their job as a result.

However, as well as adding to the national workforce’s anxiety, the coronavirus has highlighted pre-existing concerns about mental health and the need for employers to form part of the solution. A Benenden Health survey of 1,000 employees and a further 1,000 business owners last year demonstrated the importance employees attach to support from their employer.

Our research found that nearly half (42%) of organisations have seen an employee leave because they felt they were not being cared for well enough and a quarter lost a key colleague for this reason. Meanwhile, 55% of all employees (including 78% of 18-24s) said they would leave if their employer didn’t support their psychological health, with 57% stating that proper provision would increase their chances of joining an organisation.

Clearly, ensuring that an appropriate and effective mental wellbeing policy in place is vital to recruiting and retaining the best talent whilst keeping productivity levels high within the business.

So, how can employers ensure that their employees not only have support, but that it is effective for them – not only in the face of another national emergency, but in dealing with the mounting stresses of increasingly competitive markets?

A mental wellbeing strategy that works for the organisation

The measures business leaders choose to implement should be regarded as the building blocks of their plan. But the glue that holds these blocks together is those leaders, their mangers and the tone they set.

Any initiative is futile if the relationship between management and their teams is poor with little or no trust. Every strategic decision made on this score needs to consider the culture of the organisation and any micro cultures that some managers might be fostering.

If mental health days are discussed in this process, employees must know that it is okay to tell their bosses they are taking sick leave because of their psychological health, rather than a physical condition. This message needs to be delivered consistently and often repeated.

Here, the support of external providers could be crucial. Wellbeing experts can be enlisted to help with the safe, reliable stewardship of the workforce’s psychological health through diagnostics, treatments and counselling support, as well as the proactive prevention of problems.

I believe passionately that any such provision should be made available to everyone – not reserved for senior figures in an organisation. Limiting access would be ethically dubious. In addition, risks ramping the inefficiencies and productivity dips that hit a business’ bottom line.

Despite some misconceptions, corporate membership schemes can cover all employees at an affordable cost and often pay for themselves through their impact on absenteeism and performance at work.

Ensure that a policy is personalised

It’s important to tailor any policy to meet the precise needs of employees. A personalised approach to building the strategy should be adopted, to tend to the needs of their varying life circumstances.

For example, ensure that the right help is available for all the different age groups within the organisation . Younger employees may value support and advice around their finances, whereas older workers might well find measures that alleviate loneliness a real benefit to them.

Given the ever-changing priorities of both newer and aging workforces – and the multiplying years and differing outlooks between younger and older people at work today – it is best not to try to second guess what different generations would value. The only way to really know their priorities is to ask them – and keep consulting them regularly.

The most successful health programmes are those that recognise the workforce is ever-changing and diverse. Failure to do so can thwart engagement and productivity.

Don’t forget about recognition

A wellbeing strategy shouldn’t focus solely on the elements that need to be in place to help if and when colleagues are having problems with mental health. Thinking about what an employer can do to positively encourage psychological health in a proactive way pays dividends, too. In fact, this can be the support that makes all the difference between happiness and unhappiness.

Wholeheartedly encouraging shout-outs between colleagues and from managers to their team members makes a lot of difference. Recent research by Peldon Rose tells us that 80% of employees feel happiest at work if they feel appreciated.

Leaders might choose to formalise their Thank-You’s in a monthly rewards and recognition scheme – or something even simpler. What about a ‘Monday motivation thank you’ in the weekly planning huddle?

Delivering change for the better

To create an effective mental wellbeing policy, the biggest change that must be made is attitudinal. With a progressive, positive business culture in mind, it seems that many employers have invested time and infrastructure in a variety of measures designed to promote better mental health.

Our research revealed that UK companies are thinking about how to boost it in the workplace as we emerge from the pandemic, with a number already putting actions in place:

  • 42% offer help and support from management
  • 41% regularly review workload to ensure it’s manageable
  • 32% changed the working environment such as lighting, equipment
  • 31% offer free counselling
  • 28% have mental wellbeing days in place
  • 24% lay on exercise and activity classes
  • 24% have a confidential helpline; and
  • 21% have Mental Health First Aiders

Even with programmes well established, the very best intentions can fail without clear communication. Ensure employees are repeatedly informed of and encouraged to use any wellbeing programme that will benefit their needs by all the usual messaging routes.

Encourage a conversation about mental wellbeing

This could take shape by committing to a monthly internal roundup or newsletter, so that leadership teams have the space and time to signpost the support offered to everyone within the workforce. Another effective method is to ask team members to block out an hour of their time each month to work on their own wellness plan.

Putting structures in place to remind managers and employees to communicate is a great way to prompt positive change. A good start to the conversation would be to ask employees to describe the wellbeing programmes that would benefit them.

By working together, everyone can help eradicate the stigma that comes with talking about mental health and make the workplace a positive environment for all.


Bob Andrews is CEO at Benenden Health, a not-for-profit organisation, founded in 1905 with the purpose of people joining together to help pay for medical care. Benenden Health’s guide on how to provide mental wellbeing support in the workplace can be found at: https://www.benenden.co.uk/mwr2020.

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2021

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