How Can I Help? (to improve Mental Health in the Workplace)

Mental Health in the WorkPlace has hit the news again this week, with The Duke of Cambridge talking on this subject to employers and employees from a range of British businesses.

I wrote a blog post on this subject back in May, but it bears repeating as there are things we can all be doing to help people cope.  Employers, in particular, can make small changes which will have a huge impact.  And why wouldn’t you, when it can also have a huge and beneficial impact on productivity and costs in your Organisation?

What can an employer do to improve mental health in the workplace?

Any organisation can – and should -create a Mental Health plan and then follow it and communicate it to all employees.  Here are some suggestions to help you to improve the mental health of your employees  and to combat mental health issues at work:

  • Create an open atmosphere where people feel they can talk about such issues. You can do this by making employees aware of what help is available and where they can access it. Facilitate open discussions amongst employees.
  • Ensure you offer enough breaks from work and make sure people take them. When we get engrossed in a piece of work, it is easy to skip lunch, or work late. But this can be counter-productive and lead to other problems.  Make sure people take regular breaks from work and have a change of scene.  Try and encourage a good work-life balance – and LEAD BY EXAMPLE.  If people see you working all hours and not taking breaks, they will follow your lead as they will think that is what you expect of them as well.
  • Try and give people interesting, varied work which they can excel at. This will increase their sense of worth and happiness at work.
  • Praising people when they do well, exciting them about challenges and opportunities, recognising them when they do well. All of these will help to prevent mental health problems from occurring in the first place. 

Supporting those with Mental Health issues

  • Think about appointing some Mental Health “First Aiders” or mentors.  They can act as a first port of call when somebody is in urgent need of support. As well as urgent issues, they can provide support and mentoring to those who have issues but feel they cannot approach you or their manager.  You would need to train these people, but it would be an investment well worth making.
  • If you manage people, or have line managers who support teams, then train the managers to recognise mental health problems and in how to manage such conversations.
  • The Mental Health Foundation provides a series of guides about dealing with mental health problems. You  can download these at no cost. Or you could order some paper copies to keep in the workplace for anyone who needs them.
  • If someone does disclose that they have a mental health problem, it could be made worse by other things.  Things such as money worries, fear of losing job, fear of taking time off, fear of talking about it. Investigate gently with the individual  – there might be something you can do to help with those concerns.
  • Offer access to a counselling service or at least a helpline.
  • If possible, provide a telephone in a private area, where an employee can ring a helpline or contact a charity for some help in an urgent situation.
  • Many Mental Health charities can provide support to you and your employees. Investigate the options which work for you and your company and provide details to your employees.  Provide a list of those charities to any employee who discloses they have a mental health issue.  There is a huge amount of help available for those who need it.

 

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Personal Financial Wellbeing – How Can You Support It?

Do you know about the personal financial wellbeing of your employees?

Earlier this year, I wrote a guest blog post for Nikki Ramskill, the Female Money Doctor.  Nikki is a medical doctor and she sees first-hand the effect that financial worry has on people’s health.  In my article I said that “A caring employer who wants to benefit from a healthy, happy and productive workforce should be thinking about how to provide financial advice.”

I am returning to this subject as it is dear to my heart and there has recently been a study by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) into employee financial wellbeing guidance in organisations.

This study looks into what employers can do to support the personal financial wellbeing of their employees and why they might want to.

Horror Stories

There have been recent headlines  about people who are holding down jobs but are homeless.  And there have been other stories about people who are in full time work, but below the poverty line.

Of course, these are the extremes, but many people are in debt and are unable to save.  They are struggling to pay mortgages or rent and to feed and clothe their families.  Other studies over the years have come up with statistics such as: 40 per cent of adults say they are not in control of their finances; only 28 per cent of people have a savings buffer equal to three months’ income and a third of employees state financial worries are their biggest concern.

All of this will inevitably have a negative impact on the health of your employees.  It will give them higher stress and anxiety levels and affect their ability to sleep, their concentration levels and their absence due to sickness.  If they are suffering, then your business is also suffering.  They will not be performing well.  Their decision making will be affected.  They will have a reduced ability to concentrate.

You may be paying well and providing other benefits on top, but are you aware of the financial health of your employees?  If not, then you may be missing out on a good way to improve productivity, employee engagement and your employer reputation.  There are many low cost or even cost-free ways to help your employees to enhance their personal financial wellbeing.  And if you help them, then you are helping yourself too.

How can I help?

You could start by setting up an employee financial wellbeing strategy.  This does not have to be difficult.  It would be a good start to look at all the help you already provide and put it all into an easily accessible package.  You probably provide help already, but not in a clear format.

You can also signpost employees to help which is available for them – usually at no cost.  There are all kinds of support mechanisms, debt counselling, financial guidance, pension advice, savings schemes, etc which is available if employees know where to look.

Sometimes all that is needed is some financial education.  People are frightened of managing their finances because they feel they don’t have the skills or knowledge.

But I don’t want to invade their privacy

In these days of enhanced data protection, identity theft, invasion of privacy, employers are nervous of enquiring into the personal finances of their employees. But you don’t need to know specific details, unless the employee wants to share it with you.  Additionally, you might assume that your employees have adequate knowledge to make decisions about their finances – especially if you already provide advice on things like pensions and flexible benefits. But the IES study found that that many employees would positively welcome some engagement from their employer to help them to resolve any difficulties they may be facing.

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Work-Life Balance – What Is It And How Do We Find It?

We all strive for greater work-life balance.  Employers even use  “good work-life balance” as an incentive in their recruitment advertising.    But what does it mean?  And how do we achieve it?

What is a balanced approach?

The difficulty is that the phrase “work-life balance” means different things to different people.  To many, it means that they want the flexibility to take their children to school before starting work.  Or they want to leave early to collect them.  Many are willing to “make up the hours” in the evening, once the kids have gone to bed.

For others, it means only working for four days in the week.  Some take this to the extent of working “compressed hours”, where five days’ worth of work are squashed into four days.  Sadly this often means that 10 hour days or more are worked for each of those four days.  This can mean a longer weekend – but how much balance is there  during the four long working days?

Others again want the flexibility to work from any location they choose. This takes out travel time and, ostensibly, leaves more time for home and leisure activities, to balance against work time.  In reality, though, most homeworkers are hard at work for much longer hours than their work-based colleagues.  So the balance may be lost.

Balancing the cost

If balance can be achieved by reducing working hours – then who should pay for it?  When people are less stressed, healthier, happier and more refreshed, they are likely to have a raised level of productivity.  This makes a good case for employers to continue to pay their employees for a full week, even when they have reduced their hours.  If we are still getting the same work for less hours, then why wouldn’t we be prepared to pay the same for it?

Of course, the difficulty is that many employers need to provide their service for full working hours, or even 24/7.  In those cases, they would need to employ extra people to cover the hours. So any benefit the employer may get from improved productivity and better quality work will be negated by the cost of additional staff.

So would people be prepared to take a reduction in their take-home pay, if this meant that they worked fewer hours and had more time with their families?  It is not that easy.  Many people live on a knife-edge where their salary is only just enough to pay for all of their expenses.  More leisure time is likely to equate to larger expenses and so a pay cut is often not really practicable.

A reduction in working hours does not necessarily bring balance

A large proportion of the workforce is already working part-time.  Others are balancing caring duties with work.  Many work in the gig economy and so are employed on an ad-hoc basis.  Others work for themselves, or as contractors.

Technology doesn’t help.  It is too easy to be “always available” to answer that one email, or take that one call from the other side of the world.  Even when we are on holiday, many of us find it impossible to leave work behind and so take our laptops and smart phones with us.

If reduced hours don’t work, how can an employer help?

There are several things you can be doing to help your employees achieve a healthy work-life balance:

  1. The first action you can take is to talk to your employees about how to achieve work-life balance. If you collaborate on a solution then it is more likely to work for everyone.
  2. You should try to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Everyone has a different idea of what they consider to be a balance. What is great for one person could be a nightmare for someone else.
  3. Don’t expect your employees to work long hours for no extra reward. It is fairly normal for people to work unpaid overtime – especially if they have reached supervisory positions.  Many employers don’t expect this, but most of them accept it and do not take steps to discourage it.  If you need people to work longer hours, then employ more people – or at least pay overtime.
  4. Lead by example. If you are in the office for long hours, then your staff will think that is what you expect of them as well.
  5. Don’t just pay lip service – actually be that flexible employer who expects your employees to have a balanced life.
  6. You can start to reap the rewards of increased productivity, reduced sickness, reduced turnover and happier staff.

 

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Let Them Eat Cake! (Unless You Care About Their Wellbeing)

Are you concerned about the health and wellbeing of your employees?  Of course you are!  You are a caring employer and you like your employees to be well and happy at work.  Not to mention that there is a considerable cost to you each time someone is off sick.  If the sickness becomes prolonged – or even stops someone from continuing to work at all, then that is very sad and very difficult to deal with.   And sometimes it is preventable.

Celebration time is here

When birthdays roll around, or other events occur in the lives of your employees, you like to celebrate with them.  The standard celebration is for them or their colleagues to provide cake or chocolates.  Some customer-facing businesses get gifts from grateful clients.  What is easier – or more welcome – than cake or chocolates?  Suppliers, too, like to give their clients gifts from time to time.  Many is the time in the HR department when I have been on the receiving end of chocolates or cakes from an employment agency. Or a grateful employee buys cake as a thank you for the support HR had provided.  Some managers like to provide cake at team meetings.

As the employer or manager, you may even choose to foot the bill for this largesse.  The staff love it and enjoy taking a five minute break to have some cake and a chatter.  They are celebrating and you encourage this to help engender team spirit and good relationships in the workplace.

Sugar – the hidden menace

I love sweet things myself, but the awareness has slowly been dawning on me that too much of it is damaging to my health and wellbeing.  All this cake and chocolate is sabotaging the health of your staff.  Diabetes is a fast-growing problem in our world and our addiction to sugar in our food and drinks is a major contribution to this problem.  Not to mention obesity and related diseases, heart problems, tooth decay – the list goes on.   How many people in your workplace are trying to lose weight?  How many of them “cannot resist” the cake and chocolate which is inevitably on display and available in the working environment?

Stopping the rot

In my own experience, people make their own attempts to counter this influx of sugar, by providing “healthy” snacks as well as cake.  They bring in fruit, nuts, muesli bars  as well as – or even instead of – the cake. The intention is good, but the fruit goes rotten before the cake is all eaten.  The healthy stuff is usually the last to be eaten.  Alternative “healthy” snack bars may also still contain large amounts of sugar (or sweeteners, or corn syrup, or glucose – or other things which are really just sugar in disguise).

Am I suggesting that you ban all sugary foods and drinks, or that you only provide fruit?  No – that would be extraordinarily unpopular, given that this is an addiction to sugar that we all have.  It is good to indulge ourselves occasionally – and make it a real “treat” and a blanket ban would just alienate people.

No, this is a chance to really show your employees that you care, by collaborating with them about a sensible solution to this problem.

Starting the Conversation

Lou Walker, who is a workplace health and wellbeing consultant, specialising in obesity and office cake culture, has  written an in-depth report on this subject.  She has come up with eight ideas to make it easier for employers to start a conversation about office cake.  In brief, they are:

  • Create a health and wellbeing event where it can be on the agenda
  • Use, or consider having, workplace wellbeing champions to introduce the topic with colleagues
  • Start a competition for the most creative, healthy cake alternative
  • Identify individuals and teams who might be amenable to/interested in a conversation
  • Feel confident that this is appropriate. Employee health and wellbeing is your legitimate concern
  • Share Lou’s TEDx talk on the subject and ask for reactions
  • Consider a short, anonymous questionnaire on the subject (confidential, of course)
  • It may take months to implement a conversation – don’t be afraid to start small.

If you are interested in learning more about these suggestions and the subject of office cake in general, then do visit Lou Walker’s website and read her report.

Be part of the conversation.

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Managing Presenteeism – How to Make People Stop Working

People who have worked with me for any length of time know that I have a bee in my bonnet about discouraging long working  hours and encouraging the use of breaks.  I think my colleagues all got sick of me nagging them to leave on time or to go out and get some fresh air at lunchtime.

But I am vindicated by recent research from the CIPD.    Their report shows 86 per cent of respondents to their survey have seen a rise in “presenteeism” over the past 12 months. Over two-thirds reported “leaveism” (people working when they should be on annual leave).

What is presenteeism?

According to Google, presenteeism  is “the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job ”.  Most commentators link this to being at work even though sick, and some refer to “workplace presence”.  I believe that it also covers people who work through their breaks, who work long hours, or who work during annual leave periods or public holidays (“leaveism”).

Why do people work when they are sick, or tired?

You may say that you do not ask or expect people to work long hours or come into work when they are sick.  If they choose to do that, then that is their own decision.

Indeed, there may be little pressure from managers for people to exhibit presenteeism.  Many people have a strong sense of loyalty to their co-workers and do not want to cause others to have more work to do because they are sick.  They “don’t feel too bad” so think they can do a day’s work.  Others may feel a loyalty to the organisation they work for and presenteeism is a misguided attempt to “be professional” or to support the organisation or colleagues.

Of course, sometimes managers do put stong pressure on people to perform and get the job done.  Whilst I am sure that every manager would say they do not want people to work when they are sick, they may not understand how implied messages can be misread.

In some industries or areas where there is little other employment opportunity, people are frightened that they may lose their job if they take too much time off sick.  Or they have personal money worries or they fear downsizing or job losses. In a smaller team, people might be afraid that the work will pile up while they are off sick. So they come in before they have recovered, or they work at weekends, to avoid the pressure of a heavy workload. This is common where people feel they have high workloads, deadlines and believe they have little support.

Then, of course, there are people who are addicted to work – “workaholics”.

But surely it is good for an employer to get unpaid work from employees?

Just because someone is in the workplace, they may not be adding a valued contribution to the organisation.  If they are ill or tired, then their productivity will be low. This might even be more costly for the employer than their absence would be.   The quality of their performance will reduce and this could lead to poor judgements which cost time and money to fix.  Not to mention the detrimental effect on their colleagues or poor client relations.

Another issue is poor health – for both the individual employee and their colleagues.  If someone continues to work when ill or exhausted, then they are likely to fall victim to other sickness as their immunity levels will reduce.  They will probably pass their bugs on to colleagues and cause a rash of absence as others have to take time out to recover from a stomach upset or cold which has been  passed on to them.    It will take the individual longer to recover from sickness as they have not taken enough rest. This will make them unpopular with their colleagues who become sick or who have to pick up the workload.  This has the potential to damage general staff morale.

How does this affect the Company?

The Business will suffer reduced quality and volume of work.  In itself this may lead to people needing to work longer hours (a vicious circle) to compensate for time off.  This can lead to reduced staff morale, poor employee engagement and yet further loss of productivity.

There is increasing evidence that the amount of time lost to absenteeism is dwarfed when compared to the productivity lost through presenteeism. A study by The Work Foundation has found that the cost of presenteeism in the workplace could account for one-and-a-half times the cost of sick leave. A separate study in the USA showed that the cost of health-related presenteeism could be as much as ten times that of absence.   And that doesn’t include the people who stay at their desk surfing the internet or checking social media, waiting for their boss to leave.

What can an employer do to prevent presenteeism?

The CIPD report  showed that only a quarter of firms surveyed are taking steps to discourage unhealthy working patterns or tackle stress, which is strongly linked to conditions like anxiety and depression.  A previous JMA HR article has touched on mental health and could help you to tackle depression and anxiety in the workplace.

People managers need to be trained to recognise presenteeism and to discourage it.  For example, technology is widely seen as positive in the workplace, but many people find it difficult to “switch off” outside working hours.  I have known many people who deal with emails late into the night, or even take laptops on holiday so they can keep up with work.  This negates the benefit of having an overnight break or a holiday.  You could consider banning the use of email outside of working hours or after a set time.

Many of us work in high-pressure cultures or deal with heavy workloads.  This can push unwell employees into the office.  It can also lead to people using annual leave and weekends to catch up with a backlog of tasks.  This requires some serious management and job design.  You may well be concerned about the additional cost of an extra salary if you take on more staff.  How much more does it cost for your current employees  to manage the tide by working when they are unfit, only to drown when they are engulfed?  You need to make it a priority to give manageable workloads.

Lead by example

Simple steps to take include sending unwell employees home.  You could also  encourage  – or even enforce – breaks and reasonable working hours.  Make it clear that your Company expects sick employees to stay home and recover. How about sending a “hometime” reminder from the CEO to come up on every computer screen at the end of the working day? The workaholics among your staff may resist this, but they will thank you in the long run.  You will definitely see the benefit yourself.

Deadlines are a factor of the modern workplace and there is probably nothing you can do about that.  There may be occasions when you need people to work late or out of hours.  Keep these to a minimum, rather than an expected pattern.  You will find that people are willing to help you to meet an important deadline.  Then thank them!

A really basic step for business owners, CEOs and managers to take is to be the role model of the behaviour you require.  This is simple, but surprisingly rare.  Your staff will look to you for a lead and they will follow your pattern.  If you work long hours, don’t take breaks and work when you are sick or on holiday, then you cannot expect them to behave any differently.  You are the key to changing the culture.  You are not made of steel, either.  All of the disadvantages that presenteeism brings for your workplace also apply to you.

If you think this article is useful and you would like more advice on dealing with this  – or any other people-related issue in your business – please join our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.

Facing the Mental Health Demons in the Workplace

Approximately 1 in 4 of us will experience some kind of mental health problem each year.  Yet we are still reluctant to talk about it.  We find it easier to discuss a physical problem than to tell our employer about a mental health issue such as depression, stress or anxiety.  It was reported in the press last year that one in three Fit Notes  issued in the UK are related to mental health.  Even more significantly,  of those signed off for these reasons, one in five remain off sick for at least three months.

On that basis, this is a major concern in the workplace and employers need to manage this as part of the overall wellbeing of their workforce.

Cause for concern

The problems which poor mental health can cause in the workplace are wide and can be costly.  Clearly, the first concern is someone’s absence – but this is far from the only worrying factor.  There will be those who are afraid to take time off for some reason.  Either they don’t want to tell anyone of their health problems or they need the money. Maybe they feel under pressure to perform or they don’t want to “let their colleagues down”.  So they may come to work when they are not fit to be there, which brings its own problems.

Poor mental health impacts on their performance, their attitude, their interactions with colleagues and clients.  It also affects the quality of their work and their productivity.  This can lead to further actions such as disciplinary or performance discussions, lay-offs – all of which are likely to worsen the situation.   Then there is the impact on others around them.  Colleagues may feel they overloaded due to someone’s absence or poor performance.  Customers may be getting poor service and support.

Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, so it would be sensible for employers to consider prevention.

What can we do?

Any organisation can – and should – create a Mental Health plan and then follow it and communicate it to all employees.  Here are some suggestions to help you to create good mental health within the workplace and to combat mental health issues at work:

Promoting Good Mental Health

  • Create an open atmosphere where people feel they can talk about such issues. You can do this by making employees aware of what help is available and where they can access it. Facilitate open discussions amongst employees.
  • Ensure you offer enough breaks from work and make sure people take them. When we get engrossed in a piece of work, it is easy to skip lunch, or work late, but this can be counter-productive and lead to other problems.  Make sure people take regular breaks from work and have a change of scene.  Try and encourage a good work-life balance – and LEAD BY EXAMPLE.  If people see you working all hours and not taking breaks, they will follow your lead as they will think that is what you expect of them as well.
  • Try and give people interesting, varied work which they can excel at. This will increase their sense of worth and happiness at work.
  • Praising people when they do well, exciting them about challenges and opportunities, recognising them when they do well. All of these will help to prevent mental health problems from occurring in the first place. 

Combatting Mental Health Issues

  • If you manage people, or have line managers who support teams, then train the managers to recognise mental health problems and in how to manage such conversations.
  • It might also be worth training one or two employees as mental health mentors, so that people feel they can go to these people if they have any issues but can’t approach you or their manager.
  • The Mental Health Foundation provides a series of guides about dealing with mental health problems. You  can download these at no cost, or you could order some paper copies to keep in the workplace for anyone who needs them.
  • If someone does disclose that they have a mental health problem, it could be made worse by other things – money worries, fear of losing job, fear of taking time off, fear of talking about it. Investigate gently with the individual  – there might be something you can do to help with those concerns.
  • Offer access to a counselling service or at least a helpline.
  • Many Mental Health charities can provide support to you and your employees. Investigate the options which work for you and your company and provide details to your employees.  Provide a list of those charities to any employee who discloses they have a mental health issue.  There is a huge amount of help available for those who need it.

If you think this article is useful and you would like more advice on dealing with this  -or any other people-related issue in your business – please join our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.

 

 

Counting The Pennies

This is a guest-blog written for The Female Money Doctor, Dr Nikki Ramskill.  To read more, please go to http://thefemalemoneydoctor.com/blog

Are you giving your employees financial advice and support?

Your financial responsibility towards the people working for you shouldn’t stop with their pay cheque.

When people are struggling financially, they always hope for more income.  They try to find an extra job.  They volunteer for  some overtime, or hope to get a pay rise.  This is all so that they can pay their bills and feed their families.  Many people have more than one job or work overtime, so they can bring in a bit more money.  As an employer, you are already helping them by paying for their services.  But is there more you can and should be doing?

 

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Quick Wins To Manage “The Odd Day Off Sick”

Imagine you have a group of employees who are grumbling amongst themselves about their colleague who is off sick – again!  Or at least, they think she is sick as she didn’t turn up to work this morning .  All they can see is that nobody appears to be doing anything about her repeated absences and she “gets away with it” and they have to carry the extra work while she is off.  They are spending more time at the water cooler, moaning about their colleague than they are spending on their own jobs.

Sometimes absence may be genuine sickness, sometimes you may have doubts.  So how can you tell whether or not it is genuine and what can you do about it?

The quick answer is that you cannot tell the difference, particularly if there is a mental health issue, which is not always obvious to anybody other than the sufferer.   The best advice is to treat all sickness as genuine and assume that there is a real health issue (even if you are convinced that the person is “trying it on”).

So what should you do?

  • Firstly, somebody’s absence is their own business and your business. It is not something to be shared by you with their colleagues. So you should not tell their colleagues why an individual is absent or what action you are taking.  However, you might find it useful to tell the team that their colleague will not be in work today and that you know about it and are speaking to the individual about it. That gives the message that a) the absence has been noticed and b) it is being dealt with.
  • Always have an informal interview with the absent employee when they return to work. This can give you more information (whether there is a problem at home; whether they are unhappy at work for some reason, whether there is a physical problem – like an allergy to something  in their workplace).  Or you might find out that they were not sick at all, but the absence was for another reason.  In any case, you can guide the employee on what they should do (remind them about calling in sick by a certain time, or remind them about their options if they need emergency time off).  You may find out that the employee has a recurring health problem and you can then decide what, if any, adjustments you may need to make to their working patterns, hours or the actual work they do.  This informal interview gives a strong message to the individual that their absence has been noticed.  If it is genuine sickness, they may be glad of your interest in their welfare.  If it is not genuine sickness, then the fact it has been noticed may prevent them in future from taking time off again without good cause.
  • Keep an attendance record for every employee. Record any absence with the reason for that absence.  This will help you to analyse any patterns (it is always a Monday, or it is always when a specific piece of work is due or it is always when a particular person is working with the absent individual).  In itself, this can highlight areas you need to manage (staff who don’t get on with each other, or a misfit of skills and experience or lack of training).
  • Have a clear and published policy on absence, so that everyone in the workplace can understand the rules and guidance and what are the consequences if they fail to adhere.

If you have found  this article useful  and would like more advice on dealing with this or any other people-related issue in your business, please consider joining our mailing list, or contact us for further guidance.