Getting mental health in the workplace right can be a delicate balancing act for leaders. Protecting their own mental health, while also looking after the mental health of employees – and achieving profitability goals – takes some doing. With this in mind, we consulted two mental health experts to get practical advice for leaders around strategies they can implement straight away and throughout the whole year.
We lead this four-part blog series by considering why CEOs and senior leadership need to talk more about mental health at work. Then we consider the positive impact of boosting mental health throughout the business, followed by expert advice for improving your own mental health. Finally, we offer important advice on how to put the right strategies and support systems in place for your staff.
Mental ill health is the largest cause of lost working days in Great Britain, with stress, depression and anxiety accounting for around 15.4 million lost days. This all results in an estimated annual cost to UK employers from mental ill health of between £33 billion and £42 billion. Can you afford not to take mental health in the workplace seriously?
Business leaders: we need to talk about mental health
Life at the top can be lonely. It’s definitely stressful. While business leaders may feel the need to put on a brave face, the high level of responsibility they take on day-to-day can be a risk to their mental health. One study from the University of California San Francisco found 30% of entrepreneurs admitted to struggling with depression. And in the UK, around 50% of respondents to an Institute of Directors survey reported experiencing poor mental health that was partly linked to work pressures.
"One study from the University of California San Francisco found 30% of entrepreneurs admitted to struggling with depression"
But battling through with gritted teeth isn’t the answer. When leaders open up about their struggles, and then invest in emotional and organisational health in the firms they helm, they’re actually embodying good leadership.
So how can leaders take positive steps? Business leaders can struggle with mental health more than anyone else due to their high-stress position, and they may feel the need to keep this private due to worries about investors, board members or employees losing confidence in them. But doing the exact opposite can be a turning point says Kate Hull-Rodgers, Vistage speaker and Director of HumourUs Limited. “When you're struggling with your mental health, the best thing to do is to ask for help. It’s as simple as that. It's not a sign of weakness,” says Kate. Taking a small step towards openness, perhaps with a group of trusted advisers, can be a great start.
Opening up about your own mental health is actually good leadership. Find out why.
The positive impact of boosting mental health throughout the business
Building a workplace with good mental health – of staff and leadership alike – as a key priority raises morale, productivity, creativity, and ultimately your bottom line. We know that work plays a strong role in our mental health and wellbeing. But getting the balance right between good and bad pressure takes skilled leadership. You want a productive workforce but you also want to create a culture where it is OK to admit when there’s a problem.
Productivity is one of the major benefits of a happy workforce with good mental health. Happiness has been found to boost productivity by around 12%. And further research has shown that happy employees have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay. They also enjoy more job security and are less likely to take sick days, to quit, or become burned out.
"Happiness has been found to boost productivity by around 12%."
One of the most practical ways of boosting mental health in the workplace is through training mental health first aiders who are taught how to see the signs of mental distress and help someone who might be struggling. Investing in programs such as those from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England makes solid financial sense considering that around 70 million working days are lost every year because of mental health, costing Britain between £70bn and £100bn.
But it’s not just about the money. MHFA England report that their program builds employee engagement, loyalty and productivity. In addition, if someone experiencing a mental illness has a line manager who is comfortable talking about mental health and knows what support to provide, or signpost people to, that individual feels better supported and is more likely to be able to continue working successfully. They can also play a critical role in preventing full–blown mental illness.
Lean more about how you can benefit your business by investing in mental health in the workplace.
How to better your own mental health when you have no free time
Leaders are so often worried about their staff, their business, and their board, they very often forget to worry about themselves. This means they need to have the positive habits in place to benefit their mental health, even when things are going well, because it can turn at any time.
Two experts who work with companies around supporting leaders and employees with creating a positive culture for mental health at work are Kate Hull-Rodgers (who we introduced earlier), and Nick Elston, global speaker and creator of #TalkingAnxiety. They recommend some simple ways you can reduce stress and anxiety as a business leader:
- Learn the power of the breath: Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes for a moment, and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly for a count of three.
- Find yourself a cheerleader: Everyone needs someone to download to and it’s really important to have conduits to let the stress out because, if we let it build inside ourselves, we will crack.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Around 60% of your body is made up of water. Not only does it nourish us, but it also flushes out toxins such as cortisol. So, ensure you hydrate yourself throughout the day. Coffee doesn't count: it’s a diuretic.
- Ask for help: The number one recommendation from both experts is that when you're struggling with your mental health, the best thing to do is to ask for help. It’s as simple as that. You’re not expected to be infallible as a leader.
Check out this article for Kate and Nick’s full range of expert tips and tactics to help look after your own mental health.
Strategies and support systems for your staff
Good leadership also means creating plans and processes in place to prioritise good mental health in the workplace. The worst thing you can do is pay lip service to mental health, but not have the framework in place for staff to use when they need it.
Kate and Nick both advise that if you’re genuinely committed to looking after the mental health of your staff you need to go way beyond a box-ticking exercise on a few days or weeks per year. It needs to become part of your company’s culture.
To do this as a business leader you can:
- Plan initiatives into company calendars long term - not just on Mental Health Days!. Awareness days are a great focal point, but to truly create a culture of openness and show employees that mental health is a priority for you, you’ll need to schedule events and activities throughout the year.
- Train mental health first aiders. Equipping your workforce with knowledge about what to do if they spot someone struggling and what resources they can signpost to by offering Mental Health First Aid workplace training can be a game-changer for your company.
- Consider offering tools such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga. Staff may have preconceived ideas, but offering space to really engage with a professional alongside colleagues can help them review what they may think and help them be more open to their positive effects.
- Bring in external speakers Someone like Nick can be a catalyst to help employees open up. Because he opens up about his own story about anxiety, OCD and PTSD, he finds people will open up to him about all sorts of things, and start to find a way forward.
- Do LOTS of signposting to places people can get help Often, we keep people at arm’s length because we feel we need to offer a solution. But that’s really not our role. We just need to protect ourselves and be informed about places we can send others to, to get help.
Check out the full article for Kate and Nick’s in-depth advice on how to put strategies and support systems in place for your staff’s mental health.
How to handle times of restructuring, redundancies and other high-stress moments with mental health in mind
When considering how you put in place systems and strategies to promote good mental health in the workplace, it’s really important to think about how stressful moments – from bad one (redundancies) to good but potentially burnout inducing ones (funding rounds or new product launch). It's a difficult job. Here's some more advice from Kate and Nick:
- Be open about your own mental health struggles By being completely honest and genuine and creating an environment where this is the norm, people will be honest back. We talk about this in detail here.
- Making redundancies is always going to be hard This is a critical time to review how you're doing things as an organisation. Respect, politeness, kindness and taking the time to listen can make all the difference. Explain what will happen as best you can, and signpost people to where they can get some help. But above all, keep your communication lines open and working fluidly.
- Take the emotion out of the situation Highly emotional situations cause our fight or flight mechanism to kick in and we go into defensive mode. Getting your situation out of your head and processing it on paper in some way helps you see your challenges from a third-party perspective.
- Recovering from burnout? Focus on today Redundancy, corporate changes, and lack of control over your own destiny can cause huge stresses. By breaking down your activities into day long chunks, then breaking those down into smaller activities, you focus on managing just what you can do today and get back a feeling of being in control.
Get more in-depth advice on how to put in place strategies to manage stressful situations with your employees’ mental health in mind.
It is an employer's responsibility to facilitate and provide a safe space for people to open up. But as a leader the thought of providing a well-rounded programme of mental health support to employees can, ironically, be overwhelming.
Through our series of articles, we’ve offered in-depth facts, figures, tips and strategies to equip leaders determined to do their best for their workforces’ mental health. We’ve also delved into the financial imperatives for prioritising investment in mental health.
Our experts both agree that creating a culture of openness – a positive environment where discussing mental health is welcomed and engaged with across the whole year – is key. And this starts with the leaders being open about their own mental health. They also stress the importance of everyone – leaders and employees alike – asking for help when they’re struggling.
Leaders can use a range of practical tools to boost their own mental health – from yoga and medication to visualisation and staying hydrated. Finally, enabling your employees to signpost to resources – ideally by offering mental health first aider training – is one of the most widely accepted ways of offering structured support for mental health in the workplace.