Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has, in recent years, become a boardroom issue. There is a recognition that aside from the obvious ethical motivation, diverse organisations also perform better, according to almost all metrics and studies.

But it’s not always an easy thing to get right. It requires time, resources, sensitivity and expertise. In this series of guides, RedCat Digital explains the “how” and “why” of various different areas – each equally important – of diversity and inclusion.

This edition looks at mental health in the workplace. Mental health differs slightly from other areas of diversity and inclusion because, unlike things like gender and race, what an employer does will have an impact on the mental health of its staff.

That being said, although employers can do a lot to improve the mental health of their staff, it is also inevitable that some employees will suffer from persistent mental health problems regardless of what their employer does, and organisations must help and accommodate these people.

The why

There is a strong link between work and mental health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), work is good for mental health – but a negative working environment can lead to mental health problems.

Two of the most common mental health issues, depression and anxiety, have a significant economic impact. The estimated cost to the global economy is US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity, the World Health Organisation says.

According to the WHO, being out of work is a “well-recognised” risk factor for mental health problems, while returning to or getting work helps protect mental health. But once in the workplace, things like a toxic environment, long and unpredictable hours, and bullying, can then cause mental health problems. When that happens, employees become less productive, and business reputation is hurt.

The how

This section is split into two main categories: how to improve employee mental health, and how to help support those who are suffering from mental health problems. The two are distinct but connected.

Improving mental health in the workplace

According to the WHO, most risk factors for mental health at work relate to a combination of the type of work, the organisational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees.

Any single one of these factors, or any combination, can present a risk to mental health. For example, the WHO says, a person “may have the skills to complete tasks, but they may have too few resources to do what is required, or there may be unsupportive managerial or organisational practices.

Consider the following risks to mental health in the workplace identified by the World Health Organisation, and whether your organisation has policies, procedures and the culture in place to tackle them or make sure the risks are limited.

  • inadequate health and safety policies;
  • poor communication and management practices;
  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;
  • low levels of support for employees;
  • inflexible working hours;
  • unclear tasks or organisational objectives

From this list, you can start to assess the effect of your workplace on mental health. Do you communicate well? Are staff given high levels of autonomy? Are they supported? Are there flexible working policies in place? Do employees know what they need to do for their job, and how it fits into the organisation’s wider mission? All of these issues, done well, can improve staff mental health.

The WHO describes a healthy workplace as one “where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees”.

The organisation advocates for a three-pronged, starting with protecting mental health by reducing work-related risk factors (the issues identified above). Organisations should also promote mental health by developing the positive aspects of work and the strengths of employees, the WHO says. Finally, it says, organisations should address mental health problems regardless of the cause – that means tackling the problem and reducing stigma.

Supporting people with mental disorders at work

An important point to note for UK employers is that some mental health conditions are considered to be a disability. A mental health issue can be considered a disability if it has a “substantial adverse effect” on the life of an employee (things like an inability to focus on a task); if it lasts at least 12 months, or is expected to; and if it affects a person’s ability to do complete day-to-day activities.

In these circumstances, the same legal obligations apply as they do for a person with a disability. That means employers cannot discriminate and must make “reasonable adjustments”.

In a practical sense, one of the best ways to consider how to support people with mental health problems in the workplace is to address the things that contribute to problems or make them worse. Flexible hours, a job-redesign, addressing negative workplace dynamics, and “supportive and confidential communication” with management can help people with mental disorders continue to or return to work, the World Health Organisation says.

Technology can help, but may also come with complications. A recent development that caught a lot of attention was a “wearable” device which indicated an employee’s mood to their boss. This idea received a significant amount of backlash, with academics from Coventry University warning about data privacy issues and saying that “constantly logging our emotional state might even be counterproductive in helping us achieve better mental health”.

Things are improving, but there remains a significant stigma around mental health problems, particularly in the workplace. One of the most important things an employer can do is make sure staff feel supported and able to ask for support – whatever form it may take. That may mean resources to help them do their work or assistance in returning to work.

As with all diversity and inclusion issues, a little bit of work and investment in your employees will make the corporate world a better place, and earn a huge amount of staff loyalty.

RedCat Digital offers a consultancy service, leveraging its many years working with clients to find the best digital and technology talent, to help organisations become more diverse and inclusive. Get in touch here.

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