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Mental health at work:
what can employers do?

The World Health Organization has designated 10 October as World Mental Health Day. Work can be vital for our mental wellbeing, giving purpose and financial stability, but there is also a growing awareness of the dangers of anxiety, depression and burnout in the workplace.

Not all employers are multinationals with resources aplenty, but there are still things that many employers can do to head off the most serious potential consequences of poor mental health at work. And in the wake of COVID-19, it is important that as many employers as possible begin thinking about these issues. After all, there can be cost savings in the long run for businesses that have a healthy workspace.

Key recommendations for employers

Here is what our lawyers say:

  • Encourage good work-life balance: Make sure staff to take regular breaks and limit out-of-hours emailing. Consider explicitly recognising employees’ ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work hours – in some countries this is now a legal requirement.
  • Create a safe environment for disclosures: For this you need to create a safe space. Make sure people know what they say will be kept confidential and be clear about boundaries. Think about how, where and when you can have conversations with employees and who is the right person to do it. Make sure these conversations aren’t used to critique the employee’s performance.
  • Implement a sound policy and mental health programme: Try to provide the resources needed to manage any mental health issues you identify, subject to your budget. In your mental health policy, include an option for employees to complain.
  • Do all health and safety assessments required by law: These vary, but some countries require employers to assess psychological workload, for example.
  • Provide good leadership: Healthy leadership is the best form of prevention, so ensure your leaders fully endorse your policies and mental health programme and that they participate in any initiatives and communicate their support for them. Having leadership set the right example can help to show employees that the door is open and it is okay to talk.
  • Train staff: Carry out mental health training so that at least one member of each team knows how to deal with mental health issues.
  • Don’t be complacent: Encourage feedback on your mental health initiatives by conducting regular employee surveys. Assess whether any problem is based on the immediate circumstances of the employee or indicates a more systemic problem – and take any measures necessary to deal with your findings. This could mean making reasonable adjustments to accommodate people who are struggling as a result of mental health issues.
  • Empower employees to practice self-care: Encourage employees to adopt strategies to take care of their own health, using behavioural training, self-management skills and mindfulness. This should help prevent issues arising.
  • Be proactive: Try to spot mental health issues by looking out for behavioural changes in employees. These could relate to punctuality, communication, irritability, appetite loss or gain or changes in productivity or efficiency. Remember there is an overlap between physical and mental health, so physical complaints may indicate underlying mental health problems. Bear in mind also that the emotional needs of your employees may change. Meanwhile, don’t automatically assume low use of an employment assistance programme indicates low levels of mental health issues in your company – be actively vigilant.
  • Use professional support: These could include occupational healthcare providers. If your health insurance includes mental health cover or you offer other assistance programmes, ensure staff know about these and feel empowered to use them and make sure the cover includes a range of therapies, including psychology appointments (not just psychiatry).
  • Corporate responsibility: As companies have the power to change perceptions in society, use that to communicate how forward-thinking your company is when it comes to mental health awareness. Keep up with wider social developments in order to keep your policies current. Ensure stakeholders focus on the bigger picture, beyond simple return on investment. Be aware that employee interaction with mental health programmes can be a measure of success and positively impact on staff retention.

To find out more about health and safety at work