10th October is mental health awareness day and this year more than ever, it is important to check in with your staff. 

I have previously written about the mental health issues of working at home – isolation, lack of support, long hours and conflicting demands – and when you add the effects of Covid-19, it’s not surprising that research by the mental health charity Mind has shown that 60% of adults believe their mental health has got worse during lockdown. Many employees have money worries and are concerned about the future. Others are isolating or have lost loved ones.

There are hundreds of resources out there to help employers address mental health issues in the workplace: the Health and Safety Executive has guidance and risk assessmentshttps://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/mental-health.htm, Mind has tips on a range of issues including working from home and supporting staff remotely: https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/coronavirus-and-work/, Acas provides training and research https://archive.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1900

These are all useful and it is important to have well thought out policies, procedures and checklists in place, but that’s not enough. I believe one of the most important things employers can do is proactively change the way people think and act about mental health. This can be done by raising awareness and challenging the stigma of mental health.

Employees wouldn’t think twice about calling in sick with a migraine, but would they be prepared to admit they were suffering from depression?  Many are afraid it will affect their career chances. Yes, some senior businessmen have admitted to suffering poor mental health, but they have reached the top of their career and can afford to do so. Lloyds Banking Group CEO Antonio Horta-Osario took a leave of absence in 2011 for eight weeks after suffering from workplace stress, but even that was described initially as “fatigue”. It’s much more difficult for a junior employee to be open about what many people still perceive as weakness.

Encourage open two-way conversations about mental health. When you ask your employees how they are and they say ‘fine’, don’t leave it there.  Give them a chance to open up. Ask them how they are getting on working at home for instance, or whether there are any challenges they need help with.

If there are people in your organisation who have admitted to suffering from mental health issues, ask whether they would be prepared to talk about their experience with others. They can act as a role model, demonstrating that employees with mental health issues are supported and not quietly side-lined. That will encourage others to come forward, rather than bottling up their problems. 

It's difficult to detect the signs of stress and anxiety when you are not seeing your staff on a daily basis, so it is more important than ever to keep in regular contact with them. Pick up the phone, ask how their day is going, and really listen.