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Mental Health - Mental Health

Guest Article: Kirsty Lilley - Developing Mentally Healthy Workplaces

Workplace mental health consultant Kirsty Lilley discusses how organisations, senior staff and leaders can help their staff's mental wellbeing and create mentally healthy workplaces.

Although the vaccination rollout heralds new hope for recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear that there is some way to go and there will be challenges still yet to face. Many people are feeling rising waves of anxiety with the continued challenges of working from home, children returning to school and uncertainty about the future still an ever-present threat.

The toll on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing is clear for all to see, although it is important to recognise that people will be experiencing the impact of this challenging period in different ways. Businesses have a critical role to play in providing additional support to their employees, helping them to feel safe enough to speak up and seek help if they need it. Whether that’s embedding new practices into workplace cultures, providing flexible working patterns, responding helpfully to indications of distress in colleagues or creating working conditions which effectively manage the psychosocial risks from work, there is plenty we can all be doing to support the mental health of those around us including our own.

Mental ill health costs UK businesses £45 billion per year and recent statistics from the Health and Safety Executive suggest that stress, anxiety and depression are the biggest cause of sickness absence and working days lost with 800,000 cases new and long standing for the period between 2019 and March 2020.

Figures for the pandemic period are very likely to be higher than this.  Interestingly, some organisations have reported a lower sickness absence profile than usual, but this may be due to the phenomena of ‘presenteeism’ which is defined as the practice of being present at one's place of work for more hours than is required or when unwell. This may indicate a reluctance to call in as unwell or sick as a manifestation of concerns and insecurity about one's job and the stigma that still exists around mental health and wellbeing.

Right now, it is completely understandable that many people will be insecure about their jobs, with those physically in work fearful to take a day off and triggering an absence process, and those working from home neglecting self-care to ensure they get everything done, effectively hiding the problems they are experiencing from their employer.  This will have a knock-on effect for the effectiveness of organisations and may store up problems for individuals whose mental health may continue to decline without effective action.

So, staff who are in work but not well and not performing may become one of the many challenges for the modern working world.

Technology and the ‘always on’ culture are a big factor in this. There are expectations to work long hours to get everything done and we often do this without sufficient breaks and recharge time. Add a pandemic and lockdown into this and it is understandably going to worsen for many working from home with additional stressors placed on them.

The worrying thing is that until performance takes a hit, it is a hidden cost. Many of us set high standards for ourselves and will often put performance at work before other commitments in our lives such as relationships, family, and fun! So, employers may be the last to know there is an issue, at which point it may have developed into something harder to recover from such as chronic fatigue, burnout, or a diagnosed mental health condition.

What employers can watch out for

Be aware that there is a legal responsibility placed on employers to manage the psychosocial risk factors arising from work and the impact they may have on an individual’s menta health and wellbeing. In 2019 the ‘World Health Organisation’ defined burnout as an occupational phenomenon, placing further emphasis on workplaces to do all that is reasonably practical to effectively manage workplace stressors.

A few warning signs to look out for:

  • A change in what is a 'normal' temperament and communication style.
  • Emails/calls outside of normal or flexible agreed hours
  • Withdrawal / less contact than was previously normal for this individual through lockdown.
  • Cameras off during team and 1:1 meeting on regular basis.
  • Physical symptoms such as colds, aches, migraines, sickness
  • Reports of poor sleep, fatigue, low energy
  • Perfectionists – you will know who they are. Are your expectations the same as theirs and can you relieve some of this pressure, they may be placing on themselves?
  • Unusual manic behaviour – people jumping from one meeting to another, sending abrupt or rushed emails, speeded up speech and generally appearing agitated. Be aware that these behaviours may be an indication that this person is under significant pressure, some of which placed on them by the organisation.
How employers can support their staff

We now have a roadmap for coming out of the lockdown and so we recommend the following to be considered by employers to help reduce feelings of insecurity and keep people well:

  1. Regularly check in on your teams. This means having informal 1:1s at least weekly to really understand each person’s circumstances, how they feel about the coming months, concerns, level of pressure they require at work to stay motivated etc.
  2. Acknowledge pressures that your teams may be facing, whether in the workplace, at home, on furlough. Normalise talking about how you are feeling and remind them of where to go for support.
  3. Be clear and transparent (where possible) about changes and involve people by having forums or town hall meetings where people can ask anonymous questions.
  4. Educate at all levels the importance of balance, boundaries and self-care. This will be all the more important as people and their families begin socialising more and potentially struggling to fit everything in around work.
  5. Encourage people to take annual leave. Operationally, it may not be viable for everyone to take time off over the summer, and for many people, waiting 6 months without any time off could be increasing their risk of burnout. Consider ways of encouraging people to take leave little and often and explore ideas as to how to make the most of the time off.
  6. Risk-assess your workplace. You will be doing this from a physical health and safety perspective, so consider risks of stress and mental ill health and how these can be minimised. The HSE website has useful guidance on this. Gathering data through staff surveys and analysing existing figures around absence / leave etc. may help indicate where changes need to be made.
  7. Develop and deliver a wellbeing strategy from the top down which ties into your company values and helps shape your culture. Part of this will include proactive support to keep all staff well, and reactive support for those who are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing.
  8. Encourage senior leaders and managers to lead by example as this sends a positive message and gives permission for staff to do the same. Behaviours could include demonstrating how to switch off at the end of the day, taking breaks, booking annual leave, sharing tips for staying well, pushing back when workload is unrealistic etc.
  9. Revisit working policies regarding ‘Flexible working’, ‘bereavement and compassionate leave’, ‘sickness absence’ and ensure that they are fit for purpose in light of the changes the pandemic has brought to peoples working and home lives.
  10. Map out the employee journey through the government roadmap, considering the demographics of your organisation, and how different job roles and departments may be exposed to different risk factors in the coming months e.g., the return to work, delayed reactions to trauma, people wanting to remain working from home, different tolerances to risk, opinions about vaccinations etc.

Above all creating a mentally healthy workplace is about the creation of business cultures which manage performance alongside wellbeing and are committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of their employees at all levels of the business, which includes, psychological and emotional support, financial support and creating spaces which can respond to life's challenges with compassion.

Kirsty Lilley ( is a workplace mental health consultant and as part of her portfolio runs workshops and classes helping people to develop self-compassion, mindfulness approaches and improving mental health and wellbeing. She also delivers training and workshops to enable line managers to feel confident when supporting their team’s mental health and wellbeing and various other bespoke employee sessions.