Only natural? Don’t miss a chance to enhance mental health
10th May 2021
What do you do when you need to unwind from work? What would you do if your boss encouraged you to: ‘take an hour away from work to do something for your wellbeing’?
I know what many of my team did. They headed out to the nearest park or beauty spot, or the sea front, depending on where they live. Some walked the dog, others went by bike, another went hoverboarding with her daughter along Weston-Super-Mare’s promenade.
The idea of the Wellbeing Hour was to inject a bit of fun activity into the otherwise, somewhat intense, work-day routine, while showing employees our company’s commitment to a good work/life balance. In return, they sent us selfies and told us what they got up to.
Activities ranged from crochet to playing a piano purchased during lockdown, home spa sessions to re-potting old orchids. But the tendency to turn to nature is revealing. And so, it’s apt that nature is the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, especially after so many of us found solace there amid the pandemic lockdown – whether it was just garden birdsong amplified by lack of air and road traffic, or being out in our ‘bubble’ in the local park.
Walking in a lovely forest near my home is important to my physical health and this helps my mental wellbeing too. And when I’m alone there, it’s where I do my best thinking too.
That mental space opens up opportunities for re-balancing thoughts and emotions, a wider perspective on what’s happening in our lives, and for creativity. And that’s just a small part of the business case for employers creating a culture that’s open and supportive with regard to mental health.
Paying the price
The cost of ignoring or downplaying poor mental health – reinforcing the lingering stigma – is onerous for companies as well as employees.
Back in 2019, a US study showed that mental health problems were still a taboo subject. Almost 60% of employees said it was never discussed at work. Fewer than half of workers felt mental health was given the priority it deserved, though nearly nine out of 10 thought their company culture should be supportive.
Are we more enlightened here and now in the UK? Having researched the subject in 2017 (for the government-commissioned Stevenson-Farmer Review), consultants Deloitte and the charity MIND updated their analysis in January 2020.
It pointed to truly worthwhile progress over those couple of years. There was greater support for employees, particularly in larger organisations. Social awareness of mental health issues had risen, thanks to some high-profile campaigns (not to mention royals, celebrities and sports stars talking openly about their experiences). So, the level of stigma at work around mental illness had, thankfully, fallen.
That was the good news. Not so good was the finding that our increased use of technology had created an ‘always-on’ culture with detrimental effects for employees’ wellbeing (and this was before the pandemic and widespread home working).
Feeling unable to disconnect led to more ‘leaveism’ as people worked longer hours, risking burnout. ‘Presenteeism’ had also increased as employees still showed up for work despite poor health, and they underperformed. The study also found that the burden of poor mental health was falling more heavily on young people.
As a result, the analysis calculated that the cost to UK business had increased by 16% to £45bn. Absence and staff turnover each accounted for about a fifth of the bill, the rest attributed to presenteeism.
That toll will be worse now, given the pandemic. So, it’s disturbing that a new poll shows that one in four employees said their employer had not checked in on their mental health since the pandemic began. Nearly a third had never had a conversation about mental health with their line manager. Even more (43%) said the support provided had got worse or stayed the same.
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, which carried out the survey of 2,000 workers, bemoaned this lack of communication. Other specialists reminded employers of their duty to assess all health and safety risks; called for good-quality training in mental health for managers; and urged board directors to see the pandemic as a catalyst for making this a strategic issue requiring investment in mental health support.
Recognition at the highest level is important. As part of our contribution to Mental Health Awareness Week we are arranging meetings between members of the SUEZ Optimisation Committee (our board) and employees who have experienced mental health problems to learn from their lived experiences, discuss what support they received at work and what more we could do.
We will also be sharing employees’ experiences via a video of volunteers who wanted to share their views. The aim is to help colleagues feel more confident about asking for support if they need it.
Meanwhile, our wellbeing programme ‘Wellness for All’ continues. More than 400 employees now have received First Aid for Mental Health Awareness training. The half-day course explains a range of conditions affecting mental health, the support available, and how to signpost this for colleagues. Importantly, it also includes an element of personal and emotional resilience training.
This year, our driver training for CPC (Certificate of Professional Competence) for all our 1500 drivers will concentrate on wellbeing and mental health with training covering aspects that affect driving safety, such as sleep, alcohol, food and mood.
From the outset of the lockdown, we reminded our line managers of the importance of checking in regularly with remote workers – as was highlighted in the MHFA research. Something else, which we became aware of as the pandemic wore on, was how team members missed the interactions they would normally have with colleagues in the workplace.
Our Friday Forums sought to fill this gap. Using Zoom, participants join the meeting and are then split into small groups for an informal chat. We provide a framework to get the conversations started, sometimes showing a short video or Ted talk but then its up to the individuals to talk about what’s important to them. Often, it’s not work related and this helps our people to connect on a personal basis with their colleagues. The feedback has been truly enthusiastic, with 93% of attendees saying the meetups were ‘valuable’ or ‘extremely valuable’, particularly in helping to reduce that feeling of isolation.
And, of course, communing with nature also helps, even when you’re alone, whether or not it’s an employer-designated Wellbeing Hour.
You could say it’s only natural that taking time out in nature is good for the mind. It’s encouraging that Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme is #ConnectWithNature as perhaps previously we’ve underestimated how much of a positive impact nature can have on our mental health and more wider wellbeing.