Blog: pillars that support a mentally healthy workplace

By Rachel Suff, lead on health and wellbeing in the CIPD’s public policy team.

Rachel Suff, CIPDPrevention is the key to supporting good mental wellbeing

Poor mental wellbeing has been a growing concern for organisations over the past few years, further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. CIPD research shows mental ill health is by far the main cause of long-term sickness absence among employees. Work-related stress is also a major cause; overall, 76% of respondents report some stress-related absence in their organisation over the last year. Heavy workloads remain by far the most common cause of stress-related absence, followed by ‘management style’, showing how important it is to have good quality management in organisations.

It’s encouraging that an increasing number of employers now recognise their responsibility to look after people’s mental, as well as their physical, health. Mental health is the top focus of most employers’ wellbeing activity, for example and it’s clear from our findings that many organisations take a lot of different steps to support people’s mental health.

However, their level of investment is not always matched by an improvement in mental health outcomes among employees. Why is this the case?

Focusing action where it can have most impact

Year on year, our survey findings show that many organisations are reactive and tend to put more emphasis on providing support when people become ill rather than on preventing poor health, including mental ill health and stress. We need both, but want to see every organisation taking a proactive approach to employee wellbeing. This means creating the working conditions and environment that prevent or mitigate the main health risks and offering ‘good work’ to support good wellbeing. It also means designing jobs with realistic workloads and targets, and encouraging people to have a healthy work-life balance.

Education, training, and awareness-raising for individuals on mental health issues are all positive steps, but they need to be part of an organisational framework that is focused on prevention and early intervention.

This means taking a systematic approach to improve mental health outcomes for people such as the Mental Health at Work Commitment, a framework of six standards with key actions linking to practical tools and guidance. Carrying out stress risk assessments or audits are also very important so that an organisation can understand what action it needs to take to help prevent work-related stress and poor mental health (see the HSE’s Stress Risk Assessment resources).

Line managers are they key to good wellbeing

There is a tendency on the part of some employers to focus more on quick fixes rather than sustainable action that will improve mental health outcomes in the long-term. The role of line managers is a case in point. Line managers play a fundamental role in supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing. As well as managing absence and return to work, they are responsible for workloads and targets and implement all of the policies, like flexible working, that help to create ‘good work’ and help people stay well. And yet CIPD research shows that well under half of organisations train managers to support employees with mental health.

Authentic and visible leadership, combined with strong management capability, are the pillars that support a mentally healthy workplace.

Without both, an organisation’s efforts to create an inclusive culture and support employee wellbeing will be shortlived. Line managers are under considerable pressure in the current climate, and they will also be experiencing many of the same concerns as those they manage. The wider external climate and personal life events and challenges that people are experiencing means that managers will be managing a potentially complex mix of wellbeing issues in their teams.

To meet the considerable expectations on them to support health and wellbeing, employers need to ensure line managers have the training, competence and time to manage people. The Health and Safety Executive has an excellent range of practical tools to help managers start a conversation with team members such as the Talking Toolkit.

More about the The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)…

CIPD is the professional body for HR, Learning and Development. CIPD is a Disability Confident Leader, and has published this joint mental health guide with Mind for people managers in the workplace, as well as a hub with CIPD resources to support the Mental Health Commitment