Mental Health and Wellbeing Initiatives in the Workplace: A Guide for HR Professionals

In today’s demanding and fast-paced work environments, organisations are increasingly recognising the importance of prioritising employee mental health and wellbeing, and rightly so!

It really wasn’t that long ago when people were under the impression that wellness simply referred to physical health and fitness, and poor mental health was perceived as a weakness and a taboo conversation topic. We now, however, know that it couldn't be further from the truth, as mental wellbeing is just as crucial as physical health.

Although it’s been a popular topic of conversation over the past few years, some organisations still have a long way to go when it comes to effectively supporting their staff’s mental health and wellbeing.

However, when it comes to promoting wellbeing in the workplace , it's all about providing employees with the necessary tools, initiatives and support, to help them overcome mental health struggles and perform their best at their job.

Why is workplace mental health and wellbeing important?

Supporting workplace mental health should no longer be considered as an optional aspect for employers to cater to, but rather a necessary one.

According to a survey by the Peninsula Group, 46% of UK employers noted an increase in the number of employees experiencing mental health issues, while a quarter also saw an increase in sick leave as a result of poor mental health amongst employees. 

Not only that, but numbers also suggest that absence, due to mental health costs the UK economy around £35 billion every year, as 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK are attributed to poor mental health conditions. 

Although these numbers are staggering, perhaps the most concerning figure, identified by the Peninsula Group, is that only 12% of employees felt comfortable enough to confide in their boss their mental health struggles. What’s even worse is that one in seven of those who did speak to their bosses reported that nothing was done to help them.

These are not figures that can be ignored. They suggest that now, more than ever, HR departments must step up and actively support their staff’s mental health and wellbeing. 

It’s a known fact that mental health can exasperate physical health, leading to lower morale and reduced productivity which inevitably affects staff performance and the company itself. Haven’t you ever heard the phrase, 'An organisation is only as strong as its people’?

Therefore, fostering an environment where individuals can effectively combat any mental health or wellbeing issues they’re facing will undoubtedly also have a positive effect on the organisation as a whole. 

Mental Health and Wellbeing Initiatives 

It’s a widely known fact that adults tend to spend roughly one-third of their lives working. That's a significant amount of time, and within that time we’ll all likely experience some form of mental health issues. 

For that reason, HR departments play a critical role in creating supportive and inclusive work environments that promote employee mental health and wellness. Company policies and practices must be aligned, to establish it as a priority, while defining clear expectations for managers.

Numerous initiatives can be adopted to foster a healthy and productive workplace culture, where conversations about mental health are encouraged so that employees feel understood and supported. These include: 

1. Encouraging Open Conversations to Reduce Stigma 

While mental health has been a topic of conversation for some time now, it remains a difficult topic for many to openly talk about in a professional setting.

However, through regular communication and engagement with staff, team leaders, managers and supervisors can form a relationship where staff feel comfortable and confident enough to vocalise their issues and concerns. By doing so, the company sends a message that it values its employees as people, not just as workers, and cares about their mental wellbeing.  

Having open conversations about poor mental health also plays a significant role in reducing the stigma associated with it, allowing employees to feel more comfortable to speak out and seek support when they’re struggling, without fear of judgement or reprisal. 

An effective way to cater for transparency could be achieved through inviting guest speakers, or even senior leaders, to share their own journeys and experiences with mental health. Not only can this help get conversations started, but it can also suggest that it’s a topic worthy of open discussions and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

2. Making Reasonable Adjustments 

Even with the most robust mental health initiatives in place, it’s still very likely that employees will face mental health difficulties at some point. 

Whether this is due to an increased workload or personal circumstances, it’s important that managers and team leaders respond from a place of understanding and make reasonable adjustments to alleviate any added pressure from employees, allowing them time and space to deal with their issues.

Additionally, employers are obligated to make reasonable adjustments to any aspect of the job, that places a disadvantaged individual, whether that’s a physical or mental disadvantage, at a lesser beneficial position than others, under the Equality Act 2010

For that, monitoring employee workloads and reallocating tasks amongst the team where necessary can prevent burnout and manage excessive stress. Encouraging realistic goal-setting and providing resources for improved time management are also invaluable. 

Along with that, flexible working, where employees can decide on their own start and finish times, can further help alleviate stress caused by the daily commute, or personal obligations such as having young children to look after, which can therefore be deemed as a reasonable adjustment. 

In fact, a poll by People Management found that 77% of UK employees value flexible working more than a pay rise when considering a new role. 

3. Training Staff at Different Levels 

Oftentimes, early intervention can be the key to minimising the effects of poor mental health on employees, so it’s important to recognise signs that staff are struggling. Such signs may include:

  • An increase in sick leave, or being late to work
  • Change in standard and quality of their work 
  • Struggling to focus on tasks
  • Appearing tired, anxious, or distracted 
  • Showing lack of interest in tasks they previously enjoyed
  • Changes in mood or behaviour, especially towards colleagues

With workload and lack of support being among the top three causes of stress at work, according to ‘The Workplace Health Report: 2023’ by Champion Health, it could be argued that some managers and team leaders are afraid or uncomfortable themselves to have these conversations. 

However, HR’s role in this is vital in adequately training managers to recognise signs of distress among their team members, as well as providing them with the soft skills required to address these concerns and have compassionate conversations about mental health in the right way. 

The most effective way to achieve this is by hosting seminars on stress management, where staff are equipped with the right tools to recognise signs in themselves, along with supervisor training for sporting signs of work-related stress and burnout. 

According to studies, for every £1 a business invests in mental health training programmes, they can see a return of up to £10, suggesting that benefits go beyond the individual employees, but also for the company. 

Additionally, introducing mental health first aiders, on a peer-to-peer level, allows staff members to have somewhere to turn to for support besides their manager, perhaps a colleague they may feel more comfortable with. 

4. Providing Access to Mental Health Resources and Wellness Programmes 

Perhaps the most common initiative enforced by HR departments in different industries is access to wellness programmes, such as physical fitness challenges and stress management workshops, which are usually organised by the company who then encourage employees to participate. 

These initiatives can provide a well-needed break from work-related concerns and stress, reinforcing the importance of prioritising mental health and wellbeing. 

Moreover, providing access to mental health resources can also be worthwhile. Companies often partner with mental health charitable institutions and assistance programmes to offer their employees a confidential outlet with professionals outside their work environment. 

Counselling sessions, therapy resources and mental health support hotlines are just a few of the resources that can be provided to vulnerable staff. 

It’s also highly important that employees are made aware of these resources on an ongoing basis and that they are actively encouraged to utilise them. It’s also essential to make them easily accessible for those not comfortable enough to make their struggles known to their managers or colleagues.

5. Encouraging Self-care and Work-life Balance 

Frequently, when employees have a heavy workload, they avoid taking time off until they’ve somewhat caught up with work, in fear that if they do take time off, upon their return their workload would double.

However, taking time off is crucial in avoiding burnout and can help employees feel more rejuvenated and relaxed. Managers should encourage their teams to take time off, reassuring them that their workload won’t be affected once they've returned. 

To add, it’s also important to encourage employees to disconnect from work during non-working hours, as well as advocating for regular breaks and mindfulness exercises throughout a working day, showing them that their wellbeing is valued more than work. 

For instance, some companies have now introduced mental health days, where employees can take a day of absence to focus on taking care of their mental health, similar to what a sick day would be. Still, studies have shown that 85% of UK employers don't offer them at all, while 10% are planning on introducing them within the next year. 

Nonetheless, mental health days are a great way to boost morale and help employees cope with any work-related stress, while also showing them that their mental health is just as important and their physical health. 

Change starts from HR professionals 

All in all, to once and for all change the narrative and remove the stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, it’s essential that managers, supervisors, leaders and HR teams work together and lead by example.

Demonstrating that they’re comfortable to have open conversations about mental health themselves, as well as being aware of signs amongst their team members and encouraging them to seek support when needed, can help greatly improve their employees' wellbeing and avoid burnout. 

Ultimately, incorporating policies that aim towards the improvement of mental health and wellbeing will inevitably create an accepting and supportive work culture, which will in turn make employees more comfortable to be transparent about the struggles they’re facing. 


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