How supportive management can help us to stay mentally healthy at work

8 June 2014

Mental Health Awareness Week  this year sought to raise awareness of the fact that, on average, one in four of us will be affected by mental illness at some point in our lives and was themed around Anxiety.

We all experience anxiety from time to time; however, when this becomes overwhelming it can lead us to become unwell. A survey commissioned especially for the week found that four in every ten employed people experience anxiety about their work. Supportive management plays an important role in helping staff who experience anxiety (and other mental health conditions) to manage it, and to ensure that they stay mentally healthy.

Supportive management is the recognition that mental health isn’t just the responsibility of individuals, but is influenced by the environment in which people operate. We are living in what has been described as an ‘age of anxiety’, and it is therefore important to consider what measures we can take to address these anxieties. Those in employment spend a significant amount of their lives at work. As such this can have a distinct impact on their mental wellbeing. Managers can take a number of steps to support their employees to stay mentally healthy and address concerns.

One of the most important steps to take is talking about mental health at work. Stigma around mental health is still commonplace and can prevent people from being able to get, and hold down, jobs. According to the Time to Change campaign, people with mental health problems have the highest ‘want to work’ rate of any disability group – but have the lowest in-work rate. Managers that make time to talk about mental health with their colleagues can help spot the signs of mental ill health early. Mental ill health at work doesn’t need to be an isolating experience, and talking about it is one step to ensure that this doesn’t become the case. As such, training for managers in how to support their staff and recognise mental ill health is essential.

If mental ill health does occur, managers need to address the issues underpinning this, and not ignore them. This means identifying the necessary adjustments and other support structures that might be needed to help maintain wellbeing. This could be planning on a long-term basis about how to make the workplace an environment that can support employee needs – especially on returning to work after an absence. A mutual agreement on how to handle problems on an on-going basis helps to keep that conversation open so that employees don’t reach crisis point before the topic gets raised again. Simple changes can prove to be extremely effective, such as introducing flexible working, and options to avoid peak travel times.

People experience different kinds of anxiety throughout their lives: younger people are more likely to be anxious about personal relationships, whereas older people are more likely to be anxious about growing old, or the death of a loved one. However, anxiety about work appears to be consistent across working life. Just over one in four of those with anxiety feel anxious specifically about work issues, including long hours. Managers must therefore give serious consideration to the expectations placed on employees. Anxiety can spill-over and impact negatively on all areas of people’s lives; by putting wellbeing first, managers can ensure that the workplace remains a responsible and supportive environment.

Anxiety is one of the most common forms of mental ill health, and the workplace can play a big role in improving someone’s mental health. Initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week are a way of raising the profile of the issue and sharing information for those living with anxiety. However, supporting colleagues with anxiety requires more than awareness-raising. A structured approach can help to ensure that people have the support they need to be well at work.

The Health at Work Summit 2014 on June 12 will be looking at wellbeing at work and beyond. It features speakers who will be discussing their learnings from recent health initiatives, and address a number of strategies for supporting wellbeing at work.