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Mental health support services and information in the workplace

Mental health support services and information in the workplace
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This blog, by Dr Fiona Pienaar, discusses the benefits of offering a range of mental health support services and information in the workplace setting

When we ‘go to work’, whether that is to a designated location connected to our employer, or at a desk at home working remotely, or perhaps a hybrid model, we bring our personal lives into our professional lives. What is stressful at work can exacerbate mental health challenges at home, and vice versa. Add into the mix, a range of national and international challenges - the COVID-19 pandemic and the wide-ranging impacts, still lingering and echoing, followed closely by the cost of living crisis, the unrest in various locations around the world, the concerns about climate change, and it is not surprising that stress levels have risen and more people are experiencing mental health challenges in 2023, than we would normally expect.

Demonstrating the complexity of the situation is the terminology that attempts to describe the relationship and the experience that people have relative to their engagement with work, or not, and how they might try to cope when they are struggling. ‘Absenteeism’ (frequent or habitual absence from work without good reason); ‘presenteeism’ (attending work even when ill, injured or struggling with mental health; putting in long hours but not actually working all the time allowing others to get the impression you are working more than you are; being distracted, particularly while remote working); ‘leaveism’ (taking leave but continuing to work, perhaps due to the fact that there are no interruptions); and ‘burnout’ ( a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, resulting from chronic workplace stress, not well managed), collectively offer a sense of how important it is that people understand the need for a work/life balance and can recognise the signs when things are off-kilter and now how to access support. Equally important is the level of awareness, understanding, information, and support that is needed from organisations so that there are mental health benefits for all employees and employers.

Knowledge of, and awareness about mental health, both generally and your own, is critical and this applies across the organisation, from the CEO, the Board Members, the C-Suite staff, and includes every single employee. Rather than having to respond reactively, organisations should proactively establish what is needed to ensure a supportive and healthy work culture so that employees are able to focus on their work in the knowledge that there are structures in place that support them and their mental health. Consulting with staff will provide insight into what is working and what is needed.

An organisation that has developed a culture where there is no stigma around mental health and wellbeing, including ensuring that there are policies and procedures in place, clear visible messaging, a range of support available, including an EAP or equivalent service, accessible and helpful information, supportive staff who have received basic mental health training, leaves people free to focus on the task for which they have been employed or appointed, while being able to reach out for support without fear of judgement. Kindness, compassion and connectedness go a long way in helping people feel valued and part of a team.

Mental Health Innovations / Shout has suggested ideas as to how we can encourage people to build the foundations for positive conversations in the workplace around mental health. There are excellent resources, tips and guides available, including from the charity, Mind, in which they provide ideas about how to keep a work-life balance, emphasising the importance of knowing where you can seek support, including from your HR team, or your trade union rep, if applicable and relevant for you. They also reference The New Economics Foundation ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’, which is underpinned by research.

We know that connectedness is one of the most critical aspects of wellbeing. Everyone should have at least one person in their life that they can turn to for support in times of crisis - ideally a ‘tribe’. However many people hesitate to reach out for help when they’re distressed, even if they are connected, perhaps because they don’t want to bother anyone, they’re embarrassed or ashamed, they worry about potential stigma associated with talking about mental health, they’ve never talked to anyone about what is causing them distress, or they prefer to text rather than talk to someone.

It can be helpful for people to know about the Shout service, the UKs only free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service for anyone, anywhere in the UK, who needs support because they are struggling, whether for what might seem at first glance like a minor challenge, or they’re grappling with an issue that is more obviously a crisis situation. Texters of all ages who contact Shout do so because they need someone to talk to, often because they feel they lack meaningful connections. A surprising 55% of our texters note that, in that moment, or generally in their life, they feel that they don’t have anyone else to talk to. Equally, this approach can support a workforce that includes those with neurodiverse conditions or those who identify as neurodivergent, enabling them, and everyone else, the opportunity to seek help in a manner that best suits them. Shout

Sometimes, a connection with someone who will make time for a conversation, listen, validate your experiences, and help you consider your next steps, can make a huge difference as to how you cope with the challenges you are experiencing. That could be a conversation with a friend, a colleague, an EAP professional, a chat with someone from HR, knowing where to find relevant resources and how to contact specific service providers, or knowing where in the office building or in your neighbourhood you can relax and connect with others to distract yourself. It could also be you noticing something that concerns you about a coworker, and stopping to ask the question: ‘Are you okay? Would you like to go and have a coffee?’

Avail yourself of the connections and the services that your workplace offers you. Make time to nurture your mental health.

Dr Fiona Pienaar