The importance of mental health and well being in the workplace is finally being noticed.

Companies are signing up to improve wellbeing in their workplaces

Awareness and acceptance of the need for good mental wellbeing is more widespread than ever – and workplaces are doing their bit.

Once a taboo subject, mental health is becoming a watercooler conversation and employers are now putting more emphasis than ever on helping their workers whose wellbeing is suffering.

The move to normalise mental health initiatives into general wellbeing and safety planning has recently received a major step forward when UK businesses joined forces with mental health charities and non-governmental organisations in the most widespread collaboration of its kind to promote a nationwide commitment on improving mental health care in the workplace.

They launched the Mental Health At Work Commitment and with 30 of the UK’s most recognised businesses and organisations signing up, the ambition is to encourage employers of all sizes to join the movement and improve standards of mental health care among the workforce at a national level. Developed with the knowledge and expertise of mental health charities, leading employers and trade organisations, the Commitment provides a framework for employers who recognise the importance of promoting staff wellbeing.

This framework sets out six clear standards based on what best practice has shown is needed to make a difference and better equip employers to create an environment where employees can thrive…

1. Prioritise mental health in the workplace by developing and delivering a systematic programme of activity
2. Proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes
3. Promote an open culture around mental health
4. Increase organisational confidence and capability
5. Provide mental health tools and support
6. Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting

These standards build on those published in the independent Government-commissioned Thriving At Work review two years ago.

Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman of the Thriving at Work Leadership Council and Chairman of Barclays UK, one of the companies which have signed up, says: “There are no quick fixes or simple solutions when it comes to mental health. Yet there’s no ignoring the fact that work is often a contributory factor for people whose mental health is suffering.

“As employers, there are lots of things we can do that can make a difference to how our employees feel at work.

“The six standards are based on what best practice has shown is needed to make a difference. They have been developed with mental health charities, leading employers and trade organisations. If every employer in the country signed up, we could have a meaningful impact on millions of employees across the UK.”

Current business signatories span multiple sectors including banking, utilities, retail and professional services. They are joined by trade bodies including the CBI, IoD, and CIPD and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports.

A recent Mental Health at Work YouGov survey conducted for Business in the Community (BITC) and Mercer Marsh Benefits shows only one in two (51%) of respondents saying they feel comfortable talking about mental health in the workplace, and two in five (39%) say they have experienced a work-related mental health issue in the last year.

While many employers have been acknowledging and responding to growing demands, dedicating significant resource to tackling the issue, it was leading to a scattergun approach, with duplication and often confusion.

Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind and co-author of the Thriving at Work review, says: “It’s great to see so many employers take proactive steps towards creating mentally healthy workplaces by engaging with The Mental Health at Work Commitment.

“With issues like stress, anxiety and depression common across all employers, regardless of size or sector, we want to see every employer recognise and address any work related causes of poor mental health among their staff.

“The Commitment comes with resources available to help employers prevent poor mental health and promote wellbeing.

“Smart, responsible employers recognise that staff who feel valued and supported tend to be more productive and are less likely to take time off sick or leave the organisation.”

The Commitment is supported by a one stop shop for resources to help employers get started, share experiences and signpost further areas of support. The idea is to get as many employers as possible to sign up.

David Oldfield, Chair of the Wellbeing Leadership Team at Lloyds Banking Group, says: “The research showing how people are feeling in the workplace should be concerning for all of us. With one in four people experiencing a mental health problem in any given year, it’s likely that many of our colleagues may be struggling, and we have a responsibility to take action.

“We would encourage all businesses to challenge themselves on what more they can do to protect and support the health and wellbeing of their colleagues.”

One man who has been calling for this progressive approach by employers to the cause of good mental health is Geoff McDonald, who founded the global organisation Minds@Work after personal tragedy put him on the brink of a mental health breakdown.

He advocates that employers hugely increase their provision for the mental healthcare of their staff. This includes legislation and tax breaks.

He says: “I want to create a world where everybody in every workplace all over the world feels that they genuinely have the choice to put their hand up and ask for help if they are suffering from a mental illness – depression, anxiety, bipolar. People across the world can do that with physical illness, so why not mental illness.”

Geoff wants workplaces to help employees to achieve mental fitness, improving their mental health through techniques such as meditation, mindfulness and yoga. And he says employers can inspire mental fitness in their workforce – and also giving them a purpose and meaning in their lives – which will be good for both the individual and the organisation.

“You can either wait for the legislation to come along for this, and I’m sure it will come along, or you can be on the front foot with this, go out there and say, hey, we really are going to invest in the health of our people, because we have done it with safety,” he adds.

Geoff says that doing so will boost the energy and productivity of individuals, so also giving organisations a competitive advantage over those companies who are not investing in workplace mental health.

He says: “If energy is the most important driver of individual performance, we so often hear leaders talk about the need for passionate, energised employees, yet we do nothing to enhance their energy, or invest in resources to do so.”

It seems that the top brass of British industry is now listening.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn DBE, CBI Director-General, is backing the Mental Health At Work Commitment, saying: “Everyone at some point in their lives will be affected by poor mental health, perhaps through personal experience or someone they care about.

“Companies perform better when their staff are happier, healthier and more engaged.

“Many firms are taking practical steps to help their people thrive and support their emotional wellbeing. But more must be done urgently and firms are rising to the challenge.

“The Mental Health at Work Commitment matters because it supports business leaders to make mental health a boardroom priority. It is this leadership that will help tackle the taboo around mental health, encourage people to feel comfortable talking about their emotions and seek practical support if and when they need it.”