Friday, 9 April 2021
Exploring the business case for offering mental health support
Mental health was rising up the agenda before most of us had ever heard of the word “coronavirus”, but the pandemic has turbo-charged society’s self-awareness over a delicate issue. Businesses are also quickly realising its significance in the workplace, both for the purpose of employee wellbeing and productivity, as Dan Robinson finds out.
Tuesday evening is social club, employees gather for a tea break on a Wednesday and then there’s the regular stream of open mic, comedy and quiz nights.
Every day, the 270 employees at PPL PRS have a chance to get involved with a different group on Microsoft Teams that keeps conversations flowing virtually while they work from home.
Not only does this continue social interactions and a sense of community within the business, but for many people it’s also an important tool in supporting their mental health during what has been a challenging 12 months – and counting – for everyone.
“We did a lot of socials previously but we’ve placed a bigger emphasis on this since everyone began working from home because we realised the need to connect,” says HR operations manager Louisa Starling.
“There’s also a half-hour ‘time to talk’ session that people can log on to and just talk about what’s affecting them, and our employee assistance programme is able to signpost people to various support that’s available.
“They’re nice touches that are about being proactive in removing the stigma around poor mental health.
“It’s something we all need to take ownership of – to break down barriers and enable people to really connect with their own mental health.”
PPL PRS was an early adopter of mental wellbeing support
Looking after mental health is being accelerated up the priority list for leadership at just about every business – one Chamber member has spoken about establishing “no email days”, banning internal meetings once a month and clamping down on people unnecessarily being copied into emails to help employees keep a clear headspace– but at PPL PRS it’s particularly pertinent.
The Leicester-based not-for-profit company that issues TheMusicLicence – enabling businesses to legally play music for employees and customers – has a relatively young workforce, with an average age of 32.
It’s been well documented that young people have been markedly affected by mental health issues for a number of reasons, including a lack of space to successfully separate working and personal lives, as well as loneliness resulting from prohibited social interaction.
A survey by the UK charity Young Minds conducted in the three weeks to 12 February found two-thirds (67%) of people aged between 13 and 25 believe the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.
“The good thing is that young people tend to feel more comfortable in talking about mental health, as it’s talked about more in schools and colleges,” says Louisa.
“I’m 41 and, in my generation, we got told to just pull ourselves together and buck up. But we’re gradually removing those barriers for everyone.”
Mental health awareness predates the pandemic at PPL PRS – which has built a reputation as an attractive place to work since it moved into a modern office at Mercury Place, adorned with a 30-metre-long music history wall mural, in April 2017.
The company has had mental health first aiders in place for two years. There are 11 in the team, spanning various roles and departments, and there’s plans to increase this cohort to 15.
Employees – known as “band members” internally in keeping with the music theme – can access profiles on each person to see their skills, experiences and specialisms, such as bereavement, schizophrenia and depression.
Louisa is glad to see other businesses following suit with similar schemes and training.
She adds: “If you think about things coming out of the pandemic that will be a positive, the way in which businesses think about mental health in the workplace is definitely one of them.
“People are now actively talking about it and companies are implementing changes that will make a tangible difference to employees.”
Mental health first aid training for employees
Nicole O’Callaghan spent a decade struggling with poor mental health as she tried to hold down a stressful business development director position in a large facilities management company while raising a young family.
She eventually reached a crisis point in March 2009, when she nearly took her own life, but would piece herself back together again.
Compelled by the despair she had experienced, Nicole retrained as a mental health instructor with social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and set up Hope Health UK, a wellbeing consultancy.
Based in Essex, it has instructors located across the country, including the Midlands, who train people within businesses to become mental health first aiders.
Nicole says: “We try to make sure mental health is on a par with physical health. For me, it makes a lot of sense because if there had been mental health first aiders in my workplace, they might have picked up the signs that were there. I would then have got the help I needed sooner before I reached the crisis point.
“There was also a business cost for my employer as it lost me for three months while I recovered. I then left the company permanently so there’s a retention case in all this too.”
This is a crucial point for Nicole. She puts people at the heart of her mental health first aid courses and bespoke wellbeing programmes – the first port of call is training managers to spot the signs of distress so they can spark a conversation with people who need support – but is keen to stress the bottom-line impact for the businesses that hire her services.
Mental health issues were costing UK employers £45bn per year by the beginning of 2020, a 16% rise on 2017, according to Deloitte – which estimates the return on investment for mental health initiatives has risen from £4 to £5 for every pound spent during the same period.
“A lot of companies are fearful about this subject,” says Nicole. “There was a lot of good work going on before the pandemic to change this culture but now it’s shone a light on the actions that need to be taken. There’s a moral rationale but also a solid business case.”
Getting workplace culture right is crucial to successful wellbeing programmes
Pinnacle Wellbeing Services is another company engaged in helping businesses deal with mental health challenges.
Like Hope Health, much of its training takes place in the mind, with a big emphasis on using body language and voice to better connect with people.
Recognising many SMEs don’t always have spare capacity in their budgets or time to offer sufficient support, its wellbeing training has been adapted into an e-learning package so employees can complete it in their own time.
CEO Richard Reid, who grew Pinnacle out of a therapy business in 2005, says: “It’s all about culture because if this isn’t right, people don’t feel like they can be themselves. People will always fall through the cracks if they don’t feel like they can speak up.”
As well as making people generally more aware and sympathetic to mental health issues, he believes the pandemic has created a more democratic environment in many organisations where employees at all levels feel able to feed back their experiences.
“The challenge will be that as we come out of lockdown and a lot of people feel anxious about returning to the workplace, how businesses respond to this,” adds Richard.
“A lot of employees will remember how their organisations treated them throughout this period and there’s every chance people will walk once the job market picks up again.
“So while it might be tempting for companies to put this whole experience behind them and plough on as they did before, it’s a great opportunity to take stock and do things differently in future.
“Putting in place permanent mental health provisions demonstrates to people about how much their employers care about them.”
Link between office space design and employee wellbeing
Designing spaces for “free-range humans” is crucial for maintaining employee wellbeing and maximising their potential, believes Rob Day.
The chairman of office fit-out specialist Blueprint Interiors says companies must approach post-Covid as an opportunity to “de-institutionalise” their workplaces.
He has never been an advocate of offices featuring rows upon rows of desks as he doesn’t believe they are conducive to how people work and interact with each other, but feels the pandemic has accelerated the need for businesses to move away from this concept.
Rob says: “If you accept that people are your main asset, as most businesses will, then why wouldn’t you do everything you can to ensure they are at their most productive?
“It should be pretty obvious that having rows of desks isn’t the best way to achieve that.
“Give them an overall strategic objective, and then empower and resource them to go away and deliver that.
“You can do this by thinking about what makes them tick. Because if people are ill, they can’t function properly and fulfil their potential.
“Quite often, a workplace overrides individual style and personality in order to drive a consistent outcome, but businesses should celebrate their staff’s individuality as ‘free range’ human beings.”
How to create workspaces fit for people
Rob uses three main tools to ensure his company, based in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, creates spaces fit for humans.
His first, dubbed “human givens”, explores people’s basic needs – both from a physical and emotional sense. This requires high-quality environments that not only make them feel safe and secure, but also able to flourish.
“We need to feel a sense of community and belonging, and not under constant threat,” says Rob.
“Humans are complex individuals but if you can satisfy those fundamental needs then people won’t be ill, stressed or under-performing – they’ll be happy, healthy and productive.”
The framework now being used by Blueprint to build these environments is the WELL Building Standard, created by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) – a public benefit corporation that claims to be “leading the global movement to transform our buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive”.
Blueprint’s interior designer Rebecca Beadle is working towards obtaining a qualification that will enable her to advise businesses on achieving WELL status, which measures the attributes of buildings based on seven concepts – water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind and air.
For example, the mind section introduces design strategies that leverage the built environment to positively influence mental wellbeing, while distraction-free and comfortable environments are deemed crucial to productivity.
“It tells us what good looks like,” says Rob, whose company is redeveloping its own office according to this standard as part of a project called WorkLife Central to illustrate its benefits to clients.
“Not only does it ensure people are well hydrated and nourished, but it helps us design comfortable environments with the right temperature and humidity – vital components for treating humans as humans.”
Business spending trends in mental and physical wellbeing
Recognition is growing about the link between physical and mental health, believes wellbeing expert Richard Holmes.
The director of wellbeing at Westfield Health has already noticed more businesses identifying the need to bring these two concepts closer together in their approach to employee welfare over the past year, and expects to see more of this post-pandemic.
He also anticipates more investment in turning managers into “health leaders” as companies count the cost of losing staff to mental health-related sick days.
Richard says: “If we don’t have the right environment around us, everything else we do will be ineffective.
“People who have a good diet, sleep well and exercise regularly are more resilient to the mental health challenges they might be facing.
“Likewise, poor mental health is a precursor to poor physical health – if you’re anxious or feeling down, then all the bad habits and reducing physical activity come into play.
“We’ve seen mental health really dominate the agenda for a lot of organisations but now we’ll see a move back towards prioritising physical health in recognition that they need to take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing.”
Costs of mental health-related absences to businesses
In Westfield Health’s Coping with Covid report, published in February 2021 after surveying 1,600 employees and HR leaders across England about their workplace health and wellbeing, it found a 10% rise in mental health-related absence. This cost businesses at least £14bn – probably much more due to under-reporting.
This is despite sickness levels falling to their lowest levels on record last year, with the Office for National Statistics reporting a drop from 1.9% to 1.8% in 2020.
Richard believes the issue of “presenteeism”, where people work despite ill health, and the tendency to work beyond contracted hours that’s known as “leavism”, also mask the true scale of the problem.
“There’s pressure on presenteeism and leavism during the pandemic because people are anxious about being seen to be doing their job well by their employer,” he says.
“Undoubtedly the move to homeworking has also exasperated the issue of ‘leavism’ because we lose our routine that comes from commuting and the structure of a workplace.
“One of the problems with leavism is that it tends to drive fatigue, which in turn reduces our physical resilience – and if that happens, we lose our ability to cope with mental health issues.”
The Westfield report found that a quarter of employees want extra wellbeing support from their employer and more than a third of the workforce said their mental health affects productivity on a weekly basis.
As a result, 81% of HR leaders had increased their wellbeing focus during the pandemic.
Richard, who believes line managers will play a key role in embedding a culture that enables wellbeing initiatives to succeed, adds: “Covid has underlined to employers how important their people’s health is to their business health.
“They’re now investing more than they ever have in their staff because they recognise the relationship between morale, productivity and performance.”
Mental health workplace resources
Mental Health Productivity Pilot (MHPP)
The three-year, pan-regional project, funded by the Midlands Engine, signposts businesses to established initiatives that can help employees’ mental health, while companies can sign up to other pilots for trilling new workplace interventions. Visit www.mhpp.me.
Wellbeing at Work Charter
Leicester-Shire and Rutland Sport (LBS) offers an accreditation scheme for employers across Leicestershire and Rutland that want to take a lead in supporting staff wellbeing.
The charter is a step-by-step process that includes training and workshop opportunities, a tracker for monitoring physical activity levels, wellbeing tips, and access to a workplace health needs assessment tool for identifying key priority areas. Visit www.lrsport.org/wellbeingatworkcharter.
Workplace wellbeing toolkits
MHFA England has a series of resources for workplaces, including information on mental health first aiders, a mental health and wellbeing employer checklist, weekly wellbeing check-up, and guidance for line managers and mentors. Visit mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/resources/for-workplaces.
This article originally appeared in the April edition of Business Network magazine, which can be read here.Back