It doesn’t feel right to say this - we don’t want to trivialize things that are important and personal to many out there - but mental health is trendy. At least, it’s become a trendy topic within the workplace. The cynic would say it’s almost as if companies have realized that looking after employees’ mental wellbeing means they’ll be more likely to perform better and take less sick days.
Statistics from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that almost 15% of people experience mental health problems in the workplace, with women in full-time employment nearly twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men. There’s even evidence to suggest that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.
And this is a global phenomenon. In its information sheet on mental health in the workplace, the World Health Organization notes that depression and anxiety have an estimated cost to the global economy of US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity. They write: “A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”
What do we mean by “mental health in the workplace”?
Regardless of the commercial context, there’s long been a focus on employee wellbeing as an essential part of the employee experience within HR and Internal Communications circles. It seems this wellbeing focus has evolved into specific measures for pushing better mental health in the workplace. But what exactly do we mean by that term?
In essence, good mental health in the workplace means that employees feel fit and able to perform at their best. As UK mental health charity Mind says: “Smart employers know that organizations are only as strong as their people — they depend on having a healthy and productive workforce. They also know that people perform better when they feel able to put everything into their job and when they are confident, motivated and completely focused on doing that. Good mental health underpins this. By positively managing and supporting employees’ mental wellbeing, employers can ensure that staff perform to their potential — and this allows the business to achieve peak performance.”
Mind says a mentally healthy workplace involves a three-pronged strategy that:
Promotes wellbeing for all staff
Tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems, and
Supports staff who are experiencing mental health problems
Why is mental health the topic of the moment?
The Mental Health Foundation says better mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year, so there’s a clear commercial aspect to this. The value added to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high as £225 billion per year, which represents 12.1% of the UK's total GDP.
More than that, though, is a societal trend towards more transparency and openness in how we talk about mental health. In terms of Internal Communications best practices, that means encouraging employees to admit to the impact of stress, or of depression and anxiety, on their day to day lives — including how they deal with it in the office.
Jo Hooper knows this first hand. She had been a comms leader for more than a decade before she realized she was burned out and broken down. She decided to use her experience of working in communications and struggling with mental health in the workplace to help companies take a practical, human-centered approach to helping people who struggle at work. She now leads the Mad and Sad Club, writing around the topic of workplace mental health and helping companies to better support their staff.
“It’s not possible to ignore it anymore,” says Jo of mental health in the workplace. “There’s so much research showing that mental health is deteriorating at work, and that more people are taking time off work for mental health issues. Plus, it’s becoming more talked about in society and people are recognizing they’re not well.
“Work can be a trigger, and it can be difficult to manage your work when you are trying to manage your mind at the same time.”
Jo says she talks to a lot of companies that know they need and want to do something to support mental health in the workplace, but they’re not really sure what that looks like. They buy things like mental health first aid training “because it’s a tangible product,” she says, but “that only really addresses one end of the spectrum.” Mental health in the workplace is not just about spotting and signposting issues, but also about managing those issues and supporting a return to work.
The power of the community
April Doty, Community Manager at Minds@Work, agrees there’s been a lot of progress in recent years, with mental health at work much more talked-about today.
“When Minds@Work began in 2015, we were a small collection of professionals, sitting around a table, sharing our own stories of mental illness — simply having an open conversation was groundbreaking,” says April. “Today we are an active community of thousands of working people who want to eradicate the stigma of mental illness and create workplaces that are actually life-enhancing.”
April believes it’s the power of the community that is essential to driving better mental health in the workplace — something Internal Communications best practices know a thing or two about.
“Humans are social animals and we need one another,” she says. “An engaging intranet can be a great tool to unleash employees to take partial ownership of the wellbeing agenda, to mobilize and make positive change themselves. We all have a part to play in a healthy work culture.”
And it’s not only about getting the worker bees to talk openly; creating space for senior leaders to open up about their own challenges can be inspiring to the whole company. April cites the Sunday Times’ Inside-Out Leaderboard — a list of role models in business who have spoken openly about their own mental illness — as a turning point.
“We hope leaders everywhere take notice — speaking out personally is the most powerful way you can shift perceptions of mental health in your company,” she says. “Having open and honest conversations about mental health — both online and in the real world — is the first step to eradicating the stigma of mental illness. Ideally, the most senior leader in the company should start this conversation. When senior leaders speak fearlessly about their own mental health, they make everyone else feel safe to raise their hand and ask for help when they need it.
“We put leaders on stage every year to share their story of recovery and we publish those videos so that they may inspire everyone who might be struggling. After all, some of the world’s most senior leaders revere employees who have overcome mental ill health. John Flint, CEO at HSBC, said at a Minds@Work gathering that ‘People who have recovered from a mental illness are an asset to your company — they have resourcefulness, resilience, natural empathy and insights into people dynamics that most of us don't have.’”
But what does mental health have to do with intranets?
Think back to that three-pronged strategy from Mind: it said a mentally healthy workplace promotes wellbeing for all staff, tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems, and supports staff who are experiencing mental health problems. These sound an awful lot like the areas of Internal Communications best practices — supporting staff with information, guidance and a place to have their voice heard.
“There is a huge role that Internal Communications best practices can play in shifting the culture around mental health in the workplace,” says Jo Hooper. “Having a responsive and engaging intranet platform is a huge tool in your arsenal when trying to make people aware that the company does care about mental health. I’ve seen examples of using gamification through mental health quizzes, and I think Slack can be particularly useful when you have a workforce that don’t touch base regularly. But I say this with a word of caution: it’s much easier to pretend you’re OK online than it is face-to-face.”
When employees feel valued and well-supported to do their job — when they have clarity, feel appreciated, are organized and efficient, and are treated as individuals — then they are more likely to be mentally well and ready to be productive. Consider creating a channel in your Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) intranet for mental wellbeing, encouraging staff to open up and support each other. If they’d prefer more 1:1 support, ensure your organizational chart is updated with mental health champions who can provide tailored advice. Maybe even delve into the world of Slack chatbots with an integration like Stop, Breathe & Think — it’s a free mindfulness and meditation bot that helps teams to become “Jedis of calm and focus”.
And this is a topic for the Internal Communications team. Jo says she’s seen Internal Communications teams almost afraid to take it up as an issue as they’re not sure where it sits naturally: “I say just don’t think about it, just do something because there’s a huge amount that Internal Communications can do to not just open conversation but to share resources and support and help. The Internal Comms industry can move this conversation forward.”
Of course, Internal Communications best practices for mental wellbeing need to go beyond the technological — people like Jo Hooper and the Minds@Work team are specialists in getting the 360° approach — but the intranet can be a good place to start the conversation. As April Doty says: “Growing up, we are all taught dental hygiene, but no one talks about our mental hygiene. Taking care of our mental health is a skill that must be learned and practised. Especially in a work environment, where we are striving to cope with new technologies, evolving markets, rising demands and scarce time, taking care of ourselves becomes even more difficult and even more important.”