As a society, our understanding of the importance of mental health has grown over the past decade. Prominent campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week have highlighted the prevalence of mental health issues and addressed some of the stigma that surrounds them. Employers have therefore had to adapt, recognising the impact of work on employees’ mental health and acting to ensure that their workforce is healthy, happy, and motivated.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded these issues. In May 2021, the Health Foundation warned of a “growing mental health crisis” in the UK. This was in response to Office for National Statistics figures, which found that depression in adults had doubled in early 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels. Specifically, 1 in 5 adults (21%) experienced depression between January and March 2021, up from 10% before COVID-19.
The pressures of working from home —often leading to longer working hours— have led to many people reporting burnout symptoms, and this has not gone unnoticed by employers. High-profile companies such as Nike, Citigroup, and Bumble have announced company-wide time-off for workers to de-stress from the pressures of the pandemic.
To find out more about mental health in the UK workplace, we spoke to four business leaders.
Mental health policies before and after the pandemic
Implementing a mental health policy at work is good for employees’ wellbeing, but it also helps employers, too. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems cause the loss of 70 million work days a year, costing companies £2.4 billion.
Sabrina Munns is people and performance director at edays, which provides software to help companies manage and understand employee absence. She says, “Burnout and presenteeism are equally important to business success and have become harder to spot due to the change in our working environments. Ultimately, they both lead to the same outcome, unplanned absence reportedly costing UK businesses over £20bn per annum.” A claim backed up by an e-days study into absence management.
However, not every company has a written mental health policy in place, including Tank, a PR agency owned by Trevor Palmer. He says, “We have established a set of wellbeing practices which we then stepped up after the pandemic hit to create a sanguine work environment.”
Regarding how company policy has changed since the pandemic, Artis Rozentals, CEO of DeskTime, says “What we had before COVID-19 was a program, which besides benefits like free gym membership and paid lunch, included one paid day off for any health-related reason, including mental health.”
“During the pandemic, we realized that mental health requires bigger attention, so we started by adding 10 paid therapy sessions to our employees’ health insurance.”
A mental health policy is not something that can be created overnight, according to Becky Read, senior HR manager at Focal Point Positioning. But she believes her small company is at an advantage: “With a headcount of around 25 staff, we’re at a place where we can more easily embed this company culture where it’s encouraged to talk about and seek mental health support.”
How do companies support employees in adjusting to home-working?
In April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, nearly half (46.6%) of UK adults did some work at home. 86% of that was due to the pandemic. However, for many companies, such as DeskTime, this was nothing new. “We’ve always offered our employees flexible work options, both in terms of time and location,” says Artis Rozentals.
“We have also made a conscious decision to base our company’s office where the majority of our employees live. We believe that commuting is one of the main causes of work/life disbalance, so our office is based in the suburbs, rather than in the city centre, like most software companies.”
Similarly, e-days recognised the importance of flexible time-off for its employees even before remote working was mandatory. Sabrina Munns says, “[We] offer all employees 28 days of annual leave, as well as two ‘me-days’, which are allowed to be ‘cashed’ in without warning for days when getting up and working are just too much.”
Focal Point Positioning, which was also providing flexibility before COVID-19, revisited its healthcare package to include full mental health cover and employee assistance programmes. “We offered employees an additional £100 per month to cover any increases in bills and allow them to adjust to full-time home working,” says Becky Read. Employees also received gift hampers and training to help with mindfulness, stress, and anxiety.
As companies return to the office on a more permanent basis, managers have to confront new issues, as Trevor Palmer notes. “We have … brought in new steps to deal directly with pandemic-borne issues, such as being flexible for those who feel uncomfortable returning to the office,” he says.
Challenges when implementing a workplace mental health policy
Some companies found it easy to increase their efforts towards supporting their employees’ mental health. In the case of DeskTime, this was because the changes it made affected healthcare benefits that were already in place.
“It’s discrete,” says Artis Rozentals, “and that’s often a significant added value in dealing with any health struggles, mental health included.”
As with any wide-ranging initiative, getting buy-in from across the organisation is vital. “We were acutely aware that any mental health initiatives we put in place had to first come from listening to our employees,” says Sabrina Munns. “These then needed to be actioned and communicated, with boardroom level staff also playing their part in communicating the importance of absence and looking after yourself.”
What role does a mental health policy play in a business?
Trevor Palmer points out that there is an important line here between being an employer and being a guardian of your employees: “The main challenge that each business has is that we are not healthcare professionals, and we shouldn’t try to be. We should instead try to create a good work environment, a safe place to be able to talk, and instil the confidence in people to recognise the signs of mental health issues so that we can help people to reduce and avoid the triggers, and if need be, seek professional help.”
For Sabrina Munns, absence should be part of a company’s benefits offering to encourage individuals to take time off and relax for their own wellbeing. “Making sickness fair and highlighting that absence matters is key in what we do,” she says. “If staff are working when they are sick, then are they performing at their best? And is this really the best thing for both their physical and mental health?”
Becky Read echoes this and puts her company’s mental health policy in the context of an employee-centric company strategy. She says, “Our successes and company achievements are driven by our employees. That is why we set about an organisational strategy that takes a holistic approach to creating a culture which is supportive and invests in its people.”
Trevor Palmer talks about Tank’s goal of normalising mental health support without trivialising it. He says, “We hope that the measures that we are implementing create a crucial culture of openness, confidentiality and compassion, so people can speak to the leadership team without fear or embarrassment.”
If that’s not convincing enough, think of it from a commercial point of view, suggests Artis Rozentals. “Depression, anxiety, burnout – all these issues that result from not taking care of employees’ mental health directly impact their performance at work, and curing these health issues takes months or even years. So, even from a cold business perspective, a lack of proper mental health policies is not cost-effective for the company in the long run.”