Despite being a fixture of most modern workplaces, Mental Health First Aiders are a relatively new phenomenon, having only arrived in England as recently as 2007 as part of a Department of Health initiative.
Fast forward to 2023 and there is now thankfully far greater awareness and appreciation for mental health, while the suspicion and confusion that previously might have surrounded it are fading from view. For today’s society, there is little question that we should be looking after our mental wellbeing in the same way that we look after our physical health.
It is, after all, not uncommon for people to face challenges in this area of their life. An estimated one in four of the UK population will have a mental health problem at some point, with the most common manifestations being anxiety and depression. Workplaces might not necessarily be the cause of these issues, but employers have a legal responsibility to support their staff and to remove or reduce risk factors as far as reasonably practicable.
The government’s ‘Thriving at Work’ report provides a number of ‘Core Standards’ that guide employers on the recommended actions they can take to enable those with mental health conditions to thrive.
Wellbeing prioritised by younger workers
Among the workforce, there is growing appreciation for companies who demonstrate support for issues around mental health and wellbeing. This is particularly the case among younger Gen Z employees, with one survey suggesting those aged between 18 and 25 are 43% more likely to work for an employer that shares wellbeing awareness posts on social media and 80% more likely to opt for an employer that holds regular fundraising activities to support wellbeing causes.
A separate study suggests the pull is even stronger among those about to enter the workforce, with 92% of students graduating in 2023 expecting employers to provide mental and emotional health benefits, and 36% putting companies that offer these benefits at the top of their employer wish list.
It is unclear, however, how well businesses across the board are delivering on their promises when it comes to mental health support. Despite the majority of companies saying it is now the leading area of focus in relation to employee wellbeing, and despite many making commitments in this area, more than a third (35%) of Gen Z workers say their employer is doing the bare minimum to support their mental health.
Promise vs delivery
This disconnect between corporate good intentions and perceptions of poor delivery has been labelled ‘wellbeing washing’ or ‘wellwashing’ – terms which have echoes of the greenwashing label applied to companies who overpromise and underdeliver on environmental matters.
And while it is possible that some companies are cynically paying lip service to mental health matters, for many more, their perceived shortcomings in this area come down to failures in delivery rather than ambition. In the eyes of employees, there is a view that the rhetoric is not matched by robust structures, schemes and mechanisms to support better mental health.
For employers, accusations of wellbeing washing can be avoided by:
- Developing and implementing a clear plan for wellbeing based on what employees genuinely want. Research can help in establishing a suitable framework of resources, policies and measures that workers appreciate and engage with.
- Embedding a consistent appreciation for mental health into the culture of the organisation rather than seeing it as an add-on. Employees can feel cheated if schemes and positive sentiments promote better mental health, but unchecked workplace pressures are contributing to stress and potentially burnout.
- Encouraging open conversations around mental health. Talking is a powerful tool, but there remains a degree of reticence among employees when it comes to opening up about this sensitive subject and a fear of being judged can lead to absenteeism. In contrast, a culture of openness and acceptance can promote wellbeing and prevent issues from escalating.
- Building a valuable benefits package. Many health cover providers facilitate speedy access to mental health support services, such as counselling, as part of a private medical insurance (PMI) offering. Clear and constant communication about such benefits is also important to ensure workers are aware of what’s on offer and how they can engage.
Over time, approaches to mental health in the modern workplace are likely to evolve further, with data analytics and behavioural insights increasingly being used to support employees on a proactive rather than reactive basis.
And with the Bupa Wellbeing Index showing that two fifths (39%) of workers are less likely to move roles with good access to mental health support through their employer, getting wellbeing right can be seen as a win-win for employees and employers alike.
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