Who is responsible for mental wellbeing in the workplace?
That’s a question we’ve been grappling with for the last few years whilst working with a number of very different organisations; some have been public sector with very obvious stressors and some have been private sector with less obvious but equally risky challenges.
The one thing that they all have in common is that, by working with us, they decided to take proactive steps to addressing a risk that has the potential to affect all of us, often without warning.
Modern life is stressful – I genuinely believe that we are not well calibrated for the demands that life in the 21st century puts on us. So, it follows that work, as well as being fulfilling and rewarding, can be stressful and can have a detrimental impact on our mental health.
As a society, our literacy and attitude around mental health is still evolving. Stigma and lack of awareness have historically contributed to workplace cultures that tend to respond reactively to poor mental health if at all.
There are some organisations out there doing some great things to address this. Equally, there are still plenty that are on the other end of the spectrum, actively discriminating against individuals experiencing mental illness whilst often being the cause of it in the first place.
Those discriminating organisations may well hold the view that looking after one’s mental health is a personal responsibility. But, as we’ll see in this article, that’s only one part of the picture.
Most of us would agree that the organisations that we work for have a responsibility to protect and maintain our physical health. This is promoted and enforced in law such as the Health and Safety Act.
We would also probably acknowledge that, as individuals, we have a part to play by familiarising ourselves with risk assessments and acting with due care and attention. Employers can only go so far and we need to play our part.
Every organisation over five people is legally required to have a physical safety risk assessment. What fewer people know is that it is also a legal requirement to have a stress-based risk assessment.
This effort to bring psychological health and safety into parity with the physical is one small way that organisations can play their part, by taking the time to consider the impact the of work-related stress of not only individuals but also on organisational performance and the bottom line.
Leaders and Managers
In many organisations, it will be HR who takes the lead for policy and training around mental wellbeing.
Although HR are well placed to set the conditions for this, they can’t be expected to take responsibility for something that is ultimately a function of leadership.
However managers are seen in an organisation – as simply managing people or whether there is a culture and expectation of leadership – they are the people in charge. They are the people who have the ability and greatest opportunity to influence how we think, feel and behave.
Sometimes this will be positive and sometimes it can be negative. Think back to the best and worst people that you’ve worked for and you will recall that it was mostly linked to those three key factors.
Did they inspire you or make you miserable?
These are the people – hopefully following the example set by senior leaders – that ensure that policy becomes practice. They do this by setting standards, setting the tone and influencing the environment in which we all operate on a daily basis.
Those in positions of responsibility can best play their part by cultivating a sense of permission, time and space for individuals to consider their mental wellbeing in relation to their work lives and take steps to protect it.
Whilst the organisation – through its policies – and its leaders – through their actions – can go a long way to promote a culture that takes mental wellbeing seriously, that’s not the whole picture.
As individuals we can play our part by taking up learning and development opportunities on the subject, as well as acquainting ourselves with support mechanisms available such as EAPs and Mental Health First Aiders. These will allow us to take proactive and preventative steps rather than waiting until things go wrong.
The first step is adopting an open mind – an acceptance that, in many ways, we are the only ones who can ultimately influence and take responsibility for our mental wellbeing.
To go back to the parallels with physical health, we need to remember that nobody else can go for a run for us. Whilst we should look to our employers and leaders to shape favourable conditions, they can’t ultimately decide how we think, feel and behave.
Building in routines to look after ourselves, developing self-awareness and seeking to understand others are vital if we are going to give ourselves the best chance of protecting our mental health.
This is especially important if we’re in leadership positions ourselves. If we don’t know how to look after our own mental health, or don’t feel like we have the opportunity to do so, it’s unlikely that we are going to be sending positive messages to our teams.
So, we can see that building a culture that genuinely promotes and supports mental wellbeing has to be a shared responsibility between the organisation, its leaders and the individual; if any of those three aren’t taking responsibility, it places everyone at risk.
The first step to enabling that shared responsibility is building an awareness of it and everyone’s rights and responsibilities; we can’t improve something that we’re not aware of.
They key to shaping that awareness in an authentic and actionable way is to start having informed and open discussions together; not hoping that HR will take care of it or that the issue will go away.
That’s why we built the Genesis programme, to allow teams to build the narrative together in a way that the shared responsibility permeates across the organisation and persists into the future.
If you would like to learn more about our quick start workplace mental health programme, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
Written by: Olly Church, Co-Founder