Wellbeing at work requires openness and leadership

31 October 2018

The HR press is full of examples of new and exciting initiatives designed to keep employees happy. However, at a conference this week, the CIPD president - Cary Cooper – urged employers to look beyond 'sushi Friday' and to dig deeper into the culture of their workplace.

Creating an open culture based on trust

With three in five people experiencing mental health issues due to work, only one in ten tell their manager*1. The likelihood is someone is suffering in your workplace right now and, because of the stigma still attached to mental health, they could well be trying to hide it. Research even suggests that two in five UK employees who have called in sick and claimed they were physically not well, were in fact covering up a mental health issue*2. Only 15 per cent of those questioned in the same research said they would tell their boss about a mental health issue. 

Employers have an opportunity to create a culture where mental health is talked about openly. This can include:

  • offering regular advice and guidance to employees in terms of how they can look after their own mental health;
  • providing a confidential support service and access to occupational health;
  • treating mental illness in the same way that you would treat physical illness;
  • putting in place and implementing policies and procedures that prevent discrimination and support disclosure as well as encourage flexibility;
  • proactively challenging behaviour and actions that may adversely affect employee health and wellbeing; and
  • practising an open door policy.

Lead by example

Making conversation about mental health and wellbeing part of your management routine is a good way to demonstrate that it matters. What you do when people disclose their illness, and how leaders themselves approach their own mental health, also directly impacts whether employees feel that they can safely disclose their condition.

António Horta-Osório - then chair of Lloyds Bank - taking leave for depression and then returning to work to successfully turn the bank around; and Sheryl’s Sandberg’s very public admission of her struggle with grief; have done a lot towards opening up discussions around leadership and mental health. Yet a Bupa Global survey reveals that the majority of leaders feel that they can’t talk about their mental health, because they fear it would reflect negatively on their ability to cope as a leader and would limit their career. Perhaps if more leaders were open about their struggles, team members would feel freer to open up as well.

Upskilling line-managers

Creating the right culture requires managers to be trained to understand the importance of maintaining people's health and wellbeing at work and what this entails; and the effect that health and wellbeing can have on individual productivity and overall organisational performance. Again Cary Cooper reiterated previous commentary, when he told delegates that we often promote technically excellent employees to the role of manager, but then fail to train them as managers of people, helping them develop the emotional intelligence required to create productive successful and motivated teams.

The Health and Safety Executive*3 identifies six risk factors for employees’ mental health, which are all impacted by management practices: 

  • demands such as workload, work patterns and work environment;
  • roles, including whether employees are clear on what they must do and achieve; and whether their roles are well defined;
  • relationships between individuals, teams and organisation;
  • control and how much say people have over the way they work;
  • support through resources, feedback and development opportunities; and
  • change; and how it is communicated. 

It is also important for managers not to underestimate how significant work is for some employees: for many people work provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment; and often for those struggling with difficult personal lives the workplace can provide a valuable temporary respite.

Training managers effectively to manage people will help them to foster greater employee motivation and engagement, which are known to be key to greater productivity , as well as create better working lives for all, including themselves. 

If you would like to discuss any issues that your organisation is currently experiencing in this area, please contact Kerri Constable or Caroline Bellanger-Wood

*1: Wellbeing In The City; The Samaritans
*2: Hiding in plain sight: mental health in the workplace 
*3: http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/causes.htm