A focus on mental health is not just the preserve of doctors and patients. Practice managers can also be aware of their team’s wellbeing.
Right now, one in six workers is experiencing anxiety, depression or stress. According to the Centre for Mental Health, stress costs UK employers £26 billion a year. That is why every organisation, regardless of size or sector, needs to take mental health seriously.
We all have mental health just as we all have physical health. Everyone’s wellbeing is on a spectrum, varying from one day to the next. Workplace wellbeing initiatives benefit all staff, regardless of whether they have a diagnosed mental health problem, or not. Knowing that support is available is enough to make employees feel valued. Sixty per cent of workers who responded to a 2013 Mind survey said that if their employer took action to support the mental wellbeing of all staff, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work.
Smart managers appreciate that their practice is dependent on its staff; and that a healthy and productive workforce will perform at their peak, and lead to the best outcomes for everyone, including patients. There are sound business reasons for supporting staff, with many organisations seeing increased staff morale, productivity and reduced sickness absence as a result. Employees who work for forward-thinking organisations where mental wellbeing is a priority report greater confidence, motivation and focus. Yet too often employers and staff are reluctant to acknowledge and address mental health problems in the workplace, as it is still seen as a taboo.
A 2014 YouGov poll commissioned by Mind found that 95% of respondents who had taken time off from work because of stress gave their boss another reason for their absence - such as a headache or stomach upset.
Only 5% told their employer they had taken time off due to stress. This highlights just how few staff feel comfortable discussing their wellbeing at work.
Staff may fear opening up about issues such as stress; or of disclosing a mental health problem, because they are worried about being deemed weak, less able to cope, or even being dismissed. Proactively tackling mental health at work can ensure people feel able to talk about these issues and seek support to prevent problems from spiralling.
Before putting in place any such measures, it is worth stepping back and taking stock of the culture of the practice. A good way to do this is to carry out a workplace assessment or staff survey. This will increase understanding of the factors which affect staff mental health, and where improvements can be made – it also helps staff to feel engaged, involved and valued.
Under the Equality Act 2010, an employer has a duty to make adjustments for an employee with a disability (including a mental health problem). The first step is for managers to ask the member of staff how they can support them. Adjustments need not be expensive, typically they might include flexible hours or change to start or finish time; change of workspace; return-to-work policies such as a phased return; changes to role (temporary or permanent); changes to break times; increased support from managers in prioritising and managing workload; and provision of quiet rooms.
However, we want employers to see managing staff mental health as more than a legal obligation but part of being a responsible employer and investing in their most valuable asset – their workforce. Identifying early signs of stress and mental health problems among staff allows employers to manage and tackle these before problems escalate. Ignoring such problems only makes them worse, leading to bouts of sickness absence and even losing staff altogether.
Evidence suggests GPs may be at a greater risk of developing mental health problems due to the unique set of challenges the role presents. Frequently cited causes of stress include long working hours, excessive workload, frustration with poor management, unrealistic targets and concerns about job security. We recommend a three-pronged approach to managing mental health at work, which promotes wellbeing for all staff; tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems; and supports employees experiencing a mental health problem.
The role of managers is vital in changing the organisational culture. Effective management and an open dialogue are fundamental to unlocking employees’ potential, reducing uncertainty and preventing stress. It is good practice to give staff plenty of opportunity to express ideas not just about their role, but also be involved in wider decision-making about the organisation’s direction of travel. Raising awareness and promoting discussion about mental health will increase engagement, help educate and overcome prejudice; and empower staff to disclose any issues they might have sooner.
Most jobs will involve an element of stress, and the role of GP practice staff is no exception. It is when stress becomes unmanageable that problems begin. Prolonged exposure to stress can negatively affect both physical and mental health. Managers can help caveat this stress and reduce its impact on staff.
Training managers to recognise mental health problems and support staff is important, as is detecting potential triggers, such as long hours with no breaks, unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines, negative relationships
or poor communication, job insecurity and lone working. Holding regular one-to-one meetings allows line managers to build trust and create space for employees to raise any issues.
Simple inexpensive measures such as flexible working hours, regular catch ups with managers and social activities can help staff get a better work-life balance and strengthen relationships between staff.
Investing in these approaches sends a clear message to staff that the organisation appreciates and values the wellbeing of every member of staff. Support measures such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) – confidential support lines - and occupational health (OH) can be really effective, but only if they are well publicised and easy to access.
Most people with a mental health problem are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard, though some may need extra support. Everyone’s experience of a mental health problem is different, and as such we recommend a personal action plan.
This is developed between manager and staff, and identifies potential triggers, early signs of worsening mental health and what support the employee needs. This is a living document that can be monitored and reviewed.
Poor mental health and prolonged stress can lead to sickness absence. Supporting an employee who has been off due to their mental health should be the same as supporting a member of staff who has been off sick for a physical health problem.
Most importantly it is about honest conversations, and this includes keeping lines of communication open when an employee is absent, letting them know they are valued without pressuring them back to work prematurely.
A phased return may be considered, and workplace adjustments might need to be made. Supportive employers who stand by their staff when they are experiencing difficulties will reap rewards in terms of loyalty and commitment from employees. When people are ready to return to work, managers should arrange to meet up in a neutral comfortable venue to catch up and discuss the details of their return together.
It’s absolutely vital an employee’s return to work is managed well. If an employee feels pressured or overwhelmed, they may find it stressful and need more time off. Businesses get most out of their staff when they are happy, healthy and supported.
For more information on mental health in the workplace, including free resources, please visit: www.mind.org.uk/work
Mind is a mental health charity. It provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. It campaigns to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. It will continue to campaign until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets both support and respect. www.mind.org.uk
Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday – Friday)
About Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing programme:
Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing programme aims to help people understand and start talking about the costs of neglecting mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Mind offers free resources for employers to help improve mental wellbeing and employee engagement.
For more information, including tips for employers and staff, please visit www.mind.org.uk/work