Communication is so often the first step to solving any problem, and this is especially true when it comes to mental health challenges in the workplace. In order for staff to feel properly supported in their wellbeing, they need to feel that they are able to openly discuss their personal issues with their managers and colleagues, and that these concerns will be listened to compassionately and, wherever possible, addressed.
Every good employer understands how important it is to foster an open and welcoming culture when it comes to talking about mental health, but not every organisation is able to achieve it. A 2021 Lanes Group survey of 1,047 professionals revealed that 27% of respondents did not feel able to speak to their manager about mental health issues – more than one-quarter of those polled.
Here, Alana Warburton-Whitehead – Lanes Group’s in-house wellbeing lead, and a national instructor, trainer and coach – examines some of the key issues that prevent employers from creating a positive environment for mental health conversations in the workplace, and suggests key solutions that help to tackle these issues…
What is holding back mental health conversations in the workplace?
In recent years, employers across every industry have become more aware of the importance of proper mental health support in the workplace – especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought many of these issues to the forefront in a major way. In March 2023, Peninsula Group published the findings of a survey of 79,000 businesses from four countries, which revealed that nearly half of UK bosses have seen an increase in workplace mental health issues. These executives recognise that they have a responsibility to their employees – 94% said they are available to help staff who are struggling with mental health concerns.
The poll revealed that two-thirds of employers are confident their employees would talk to them about their mental health concerns. However, it also showed that only 12% of employees have actually done so – and one in seven of those who did speak to their bosses said nothing was done as a result of this.
In my own experience, there is often a gulf in perceptions and outlooks between company management and the rank-and-file employees, which can make it difficult to foster open and productive conversations about mental health. Many managers maintain too much of a distance from the everyday concerns and attitudes of their workers to be able to have empathetic conversations with them, and in the worst cases, this can lead to an unhelpfully adversarial “us vs them” attitude.
These problems are exacerbated by cultural differences between workers and their bosses, especially in blue-collar or service-based industries, where staff often face unique circumstances and challenges that the managerial class does not understand:
- Many employees in the construction and engineering sectors are younger than their managers, creating a generational gap that hampers communication. Others may also be neurodivergent, meaning they will have particular mental health needs that need to be managed in specific ways
- Some manual labourers will be used to working alone, on their own initiative, and simply prefer not to be actively “managed” at all; this means they will be less willing to open up on matters of mental wellbeing
None of these factors are necessarily negative, and do not need to be a source of any problems in the workplace, but if managers do not take these dynamics into consideration, it becomes much more difficult for them to encourage these workers to be open about their mental health, or about any other workplace concerns they might have.
The result of this may be a dysfunctional working environment, in which managers and workers do not respect each other, where staff do not feel valued for their contributions or able to discuss their problems, and where clear and constructive communication is not possible.
Key steps to foster open dialogue about mental health
In order to avoid these negative outcomes, employers need to make sure they are taking all of the necessary steps to create a welcoming and supportive workplace, in which workers feel comfortable and empowered to have open conversations about even the most challenging mental health topics.
Here are just a few steps your organisation can take to generate a more positive dialogue about mental health:
Instil a culture of empathetic management
It is vital that your company’s management culture treats workers as individual people first and foremost, rather than as resources to be managed. This means that those in charge of a specific team should strive to know and understand each member of their team as individuals, and recognise their personal needs.
As part of this, managers should take time to speak to workers who appear to be struggling; if a staff member is having trouble with timekeeping, or has taken extended sickness absence, it is always better to have a conversation and find out what might be troubling them, rather than hitting them with disciplinary measures or putting them straight on to a performance improvement plan.
Develop individualised support plans to meet each worker’s needs
Good mental health in the workplace should be seen as interchangeable with physical safety. This is why psychological risk assessments for individual staff members can be a useful tool, building on the methodology used in carrying out standard risk assessments for dangerous physical tasks.
A psychological risk assessment involves speaking to your workers about their mental health background and individual needs, in order to find out what kind of support they might require from you, and identify anything they might need to stay mentally safe and well on the job. By creating these individual safety profiles and plans, it will be easier for managers and HR leaders to understand how to support each staff member.
Create resources for managers to learn about mental health
The principles of good mental health support cannot be learned overnight, or in a single training session. Companies need to provide their managers with access to high-quality training resources and information on an ongoing basis, and all members of the team must show a commitment to continuous learning and improvement.
After all, mental health crises can be extremely challenging to deal with, but if they happen in the workplace, bosses have a responsibility to know what to do. If a member of staff is struggling with suicidal feelings, for example, would your team feel confident in handling the matter? If such a situation arises, it is essential that colleagues around them know what steps to take, or at very least, that they have resources they can consult to help guide their actions.
Support your mental health first aiders
Many modern workplaces will have a certain number of mental health first aiders on their team. Having these trained volunteers among your workforce can be invaluable in giving people a first point of contact if they are struggling, and allowing them to share their problems with a peer or colleague rather than going straight to management.
At Lanes Group, we are developing new stickers for mental health first aiders to wear on their work helmets, identifying them to others and providing contact details if anyone wants to get in touch. This makes it easier for colleagues to recognise and approach first aiders, even if they do not necessarily know them by name.
It is also vital to make sure that mental health first aiders are properly supported by the HR team and managers. After all, these are also individuals with their own mental health needs, who may become overburdened if they are required to do too much; make sure to surround them with supportive managers, and provide them with training and guidance to help them grow and evolve their own understanding of mental health.
Encourage staff to be proactive about their own mental health needs
The most effective way to generate more positive conversations about mental health in the workplace is to do so at every level of the company, rather than simply from the top down. Workers need to know that their managers will support them with their mental health – but they also need to be encouraged to take their own mental wellbeing seriously, and to speak up if they are unhappy in order to improve their circumstances.
This means making sure that everyone on site knows who to speak to about their mental health needs. You can do this by posting contact details and key information in communal break rooms, or hosting coffee break talks on key topics relating to mental wellbeing, such as stress management and suicide awareness.
By taking these steps, companies will be able to make important progress towards their goal of creating a truly constructive environment of trust and open dialogue when it comes to mental health. This will not happen overnight, but by embedding these values into your HR strategy, you stand the best chance of creating the self-sustaining improvements that any company needs to truly transform its culture.