1 in 6 people in the workplace experience mental health problems, according to 2016 research by the Mental Health Foundation. Now in 2020, in a climate of social distancing and working from environments outside our normal routine, mental health in the workplace has taken on a whole new meaning.
We spoke to Amber O’Brien, Founder of Headworks and a registered mental health nurse with 15 years’ experience in the mental health sector, to get some evidenced and practical advice on how employers and employees can protect their mental health, during COVID-19 and beyond.
Hi Amber! Tell us more about yourself and why you founded Headworks?
I am a registered mental health nurse, I’ve worked in the NHS and the private care sector for around 15 years in lots of different settings – from inpatient, then as a practice development nurse, ward manager, and a lot of senior roles. Over the years, I had quite a few patients who unfortunately lost their employment or couldn’t find employment specifically because of their mental health. From there I developed an interest in mental health in the workplace. I looked into it a lot more and realised there was quite a lot of information and knowledge lacking around it, with some fascinating research being done on the sidelines. That’s why I decided to set up Headworks. I think a lot of businesses might not realise the extent to mental health problems in the workplace in terms of absenteeism. We know that one in six people in the workplace actually experiences mental health problems, and anxiety, depression, and stress are among the main causes of lost working days in the UK. It’s a big, big thing. It has a big impact on the workforce and obviously on the individual, more importantly for me.
How do you think mental health is treated in the workplace compared to physical health?
Obviously it depends on the workplace. There are some places that are improving, but I think in general there’s a lot of stigma still attached to mental health and particularly in the workplace. I think a lot of people feel very uncomfortable talking about it, or they think that it’s offensive, or they might upset someone if they reference their mental health problems or the fact they’ve had a period of mental ill health. General consensus is that if someone breaks their leg or they’ve been off with tonsillitis, you’d ask them “How are you doing? Are you feeling better?” in a much more outright way. I think there’s a lot of discomfort around the topic still and no matter how much we talk on social media about mental health awareness, people with mental health problems tend to still feel uncomfortable talking about it too. And there’s a lot of internalised stigma and people feeling that they’ll get in trouble or be seen as incompetent if they’ve got mental health problems or if they need to take some time off because of mental ill health.
If an employer or business owner wants to have a better provision for people with mental health in their workplace, but they don’t really know where to start, what advice would you give them?
There’s a lot of guidance out there now, such as government guidance as to mental health strategy and suggestions for implementing. I would say first and foremost it’s about starting from the ground up and thinking about supporting all employees, bearing in mind that we’ve all got mental health, and we could all become unwell at any point just as we’ve all got physical health. If you’re having open conversations about mental health, actively supporting staff, and providing wellbeing activities, then you’re going to find that you start raising awareness of mental health across the organisation. The conversation is massively enhanced when people with mental health problems potentially feel more comfortable about being open.
What are some practical examples, such as programmes or solutions, that you’ve seen working really well for employees’ mental health at work?
There’s a lot of small practical steps to take which work as a brilliant start point. Firstly, training is key, so employers know how to support their employees and how to think about mental health for everyone. Secondly, make sure you’re having regular one-to-ones with your staff and actually check with yourself that you’re asking about how they’re doing personally. You don’t have to go into a massive amount of detail and it’s up to your people what they want to talk about, but you need to specifically ask about their wellbeing because that lacks in a lot of workplaces. Next, consider your management style – have an open door policy, be approachable, and be open about mental health, whether that’s being open about your own mental health or just in general.
Outside of people and management, there’s lots of environmental things that can have an impact on mental health. Consider how much natural light is in your office, where people are sitting, how they can have regular breaks and suitable areas to take those breaks. All of these things can have a big impact. Wellbeing activities are really helpful for team building, but also for employee mental health. A great example I’ve seen is workplaces offering weekly or fortnightly meditation, which is optional, but the team can go along and join guided sessions with a qualified practitioner. Meditation is a fun skill to learn, and there’s evidence that it has a direct positive impact on wellbeing. Taking the time to just be, especially when we lead such busy lives, is incredibly useful. You could also consider holding group exercise classes (again, optional!) or coffee mornings.
Right now during the coronavirus pandemic, the way that people work and think about the office is changing hugely. What tips would you give to people who might be struggling with mental health right now with everything going on in the world?
We need to think about evidence-based strategies, then be flexible and adapt them to working from home essentially. Tip number one is to try to maintain the boundary between work and personal time, which can be much harder when you’re working at home. Have a set work time so it kind of feels how it does when we go into the office. A clear structure is vital: start on time, finish on time, and take regular breaks. Make sure you’re getting up and getting dressed as if you’re going into a workplace. Make sure you have a dedicated workspace – obviously not everyone has a home office, so your workspace could be at your dining table, but just try and make it a pleasant space for you.
Definitely stay connected with your colleagues throughout the day. Obviously if you’re an employer, make sure you’re staying connected with your employees. That will help people feel less isolated and more supported. It’s a really bizarre time at the moment, but there’s a lot of evidence that staying connected with others has a big impact on wellbeing. One lucky thing about this happening now in 2020 is that we’ve got technology on our side to keep in touch with each other. Make time for video calls to family and friends.
We know physical activity has a big impact on mood, so whether you prefer walking, running, cycling, yoga or another form of exercise, it’s a massive help to make time for it. A lot of people are out on the street running at the moment, but if you’re not into running, it can be a walk. That’s still exercise.
Learning new skills can have a massive impact on our mood if we’re struggling. And it’s a good time. We’ve got a lot of time! So whatever it might be, learning a language, playing an instrument, baking, painting, give it a try. Giving to others can also boost the mood. There’s a lot of online charities, looking for virtual or remote volunteers, like telephone services for the elderly.
Being present in the moment is really useful, known as mindfulness meditation. You could use apps like Headspace or Calm if you want something guided.
Finally, just think about maintaining healthy habits or be aware of developing unhealthy habits. It’s really tempting to think, “Oh, I’ll have a glass of wine tonight,” especially as the weather’s warming up. But obviously it’s troubling if we’re doing that every night, working from home, and not going out so much. Consider keeping your alcohol in check, not smoking so much, and make sure that your sleep pattern’s healthy.
How is the news affecting people’s mental health at the moment? What can we do as individuals to mitigate any stress and anxiety we feel after watching the news?
News around this subject is really difficult and it is negatively impacting a lot. I’ve seen a lot of people becoming distressed by the news… We’re living in a time where we have rolling news constantly and there’s a lot of news notifications that are either inaccurate information or preliminary scientific findings that can seem quite alarming. We need to bear in mind that those things can change very quickly or can seem a lot worse than they are, because we’re seeing anecdotal stories rather than the bigger picture.
So I would say don’t look at the news, frankly. We don’t need to be constantly looking at news. I’d say switch off your notifications, avoid looking at any news for the next two days. If you want to make sure that you’re up to date with anything you need to know, such as government guidance, ask a friend or a family member. Let them know you’re finding things quite stressing at the moment and you need them to text you anything relevant to you from the news. There’s no need to keep reading endless news stories. As long as we’re following the government guidance, that’s all we really need to be doing at this time. And if people want accurate, up-to-date information, look at sources like the NHS or World Health Organization website because that’s the most current evidence-based information. Focus on what’s useful information, not alarmist and preliminary news.