How can an office support mental health and wellbeing?
Britain has gotten more stressful in recent years for many people. Everywhere we look, there’s a new statistic to tell us just how miserable, burnt out, and fundamentally abandoned we are: one recent survey reported that only 13 per cent of people in the UK would say they are in good mental health.
Let’s put some context in that statistic. The current UK population stands at 67,613,395*. If, on average, only 13 per cent of the population feels as though they are enjoying a good level of mental health, that means a whopping 58,823,654 people are dealing with below-average mental health.
What about in the workplace? Well, looking at a hypothetical company of 50 employees, if only 13 per cent are happy in their current mental health, there are around 43 employees who are struggling with less-than-great mental health.
Clearly, there’s a need to support and cultivate good mental health practices in the workplaces of Britain. But how can employers and employees go about doing this? As with any problem, the first step is to identify exactly what it is…
Mental health vs mental illness: What’s the difference?
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, mental health and mental illness are very different issues. Both need to be handled in the workplace with equal levels of respect and understanding, and in many cases, both are manageable for a person in order to perform as well as their co-workers who suffer neither mental illness nor poor mental health.
But it is important to understand the difference in order to deliver the best level of management within your workplace. On his recent visit to South Africa, the Duke of Sussex defined the two matters best by saying:
“I think most of the stigma is around mental illness, we need to separate the two… mental health, which is every single one of us, and mental illness, which could be every single one of us.”
Everyone deals with mental health every day, in much the same way as they deal with physical health. Some people are physically healthy, while some people have physical illnesses they deal with on a daily basis. An external factor can impact your physical health — for example, someone who is physically healthy walks into a room filled with smoke. They start coughing, and their physical health decreases in that situation. But for someone with a physical illness they deal with every day, a flare-up of symptoms can cause their physical health to decrease without any outside cause (like the smoke!). But, if that person were to walk into the same room of smoke, they would start coughing like the physically healthy person would, only to a heightened degree.
The same can be said for mental health compared to mental illness. Someone who is mentally healthy might have a bad day at work. This causes their mental health to decrease — and it’s an understandable reaction to a negative event. But someone with mental illness may feel that way without any obvious outside influence (like the bad day at work scenario). Again, should the person with mental illness have a bad day at work too, they might feel the impact of this outside influence to a much greater degree. Of course, that’s not to say that’s always the case — someone with a mental illness can be mentally healthy and coping well. Someone without a mental illness can be mentally unhealthy and not coping.
Correctly supporting mental health and mental illness at work
As cliché as it sounds, a happy workforce is a productive workforce. Businesses can do several things to not only support employees coping with mental illness, but also support positive day-to-day mental health across the workforce. Often, these processes go hand-in-hand, but there are a few things companies can do to specifically tailor to one or the other.
Education at work
Holding talks can be hugely beneficial to creating a sense of openness and understanding in the workplace. Many people may erroneously think a mental illness automatically disqualifies someone from working or think that poor mental health is a sign of weakness. Both of these viewpoints can be wildly detrimental to other employees, who may not have spoken openly about their struggles and fear to do so upon hearing this from their colleagues.
Encourage a better-enlightened mindset for your workplace. There are numerous charities and experts who would be more than happy to come into the workplace to give a talk on the realities of mental health and mental illness, and help to disperse any stereotypes or falsehoods regarding the issues.
Why not make a day of it? You don’t have to wait for an national day to raise awareness — host an expert for a workshop on mental health in the workplace, and set aside some time in the canteen after for people to ask questions and discuss the matter. You could make a coffee morning of it with an array of cakes on offer, hot beverages, or an iced coffee machine if you’re hosting in the summer months! This type of event will make for a much more open and supportive network among staff. They will learn how to approach co-workers they may be concerned for, or how to reach out if they themselves are dealing with a difficult time.
There are processes that can be built into a company to help ease pressure on mental health. The goal is to make the office environment as relaxed as possible — the work itself might be stressful, but the environment should balance out to avoid natural stress becoming unmanageable anxiety. After all, a comfortable worker can tackle a difficult task better than an uncomfortable one.
Be sure to look at your workplace’s processes and layouts too. For example, open-plan offices are popular in the workplace right now, and it certainly has its benefits. It prevents silo-working, encourages communication, and dispels some of the hierarchal feeling that can develop in cubicle-style work. People can ask for feedback easier in an open-plan office, and this can promote a more efficient creativity.
However, for someone with anxiety or autism, open-plan offices can prove challenging. The sense of being in a crowd can be uncomfortable for some, and people with anxiety disorders or autism can struggle in noisy, chaotic environments — too much noise, from office music or chatter, can overwhelm an employee with autism, for example, due to auditory sensitivity. An anxious employee might find it difficult to work in an open-plan office, but not impossible on a good day. But on a bad day, it could be overbearing. Having the option to work away from the open-style office could be a beneficial perk to some employees, whether this is a dedicated “quiet room” for intensive tasks that require a lot of concentration, or the option to work from home on days when a person’s mental health isn’t at its best.
The fact is many people are working while dealing with bad mental health or a daily struggle with mental illness. Many people do so perfectly successfully too! But it is beneficial to both employers and employees to ensure flexibility and support are on hand at work to help everyone when needed.
*Number correct as of 24th September 2019