• Clare Hopkins

Safeguarding mental health

The real need to focus on the 'care' aspect of a employers duty of care

A 2020 study by a new mental health charity which surveyed 1,500 UK workers in September found:

  • 56% hadn't received any mental health advice or support from their employer since the COVID19 pandemic began in March

  • 85% did not think mental health support has been a priority for their employer during the pandemic

  • 35% reported worse mental health now compared to before the pandemic

  • 68% felt more anxious and apprehensive about returning to work

  • 51% felt uncertain about job security due to the pandemic

The survey by TalkOut also revealed that:

  • 31% of employees had less 1-2-1 meetings compared to before the pandemic; and

  • 60% of employees said there were no social interactions organised by their employer to keep connected with colleagues whilst working from home.

Employers duty of care

There is a legal and ethical duty for all employers to prevent physical and psychological harm to their employees. So it's fair to say that for a number of these survey respondents their employers have struggled to follow their duty of care amidst the COVID19 pandemic. Which is probably not surprising given the unprecedented situation we have faced, combined with the historic lack of priority for workplace wellbeing by many organisations.

The lack of priority for employee wellbeing is surprising considering the widely evidenced benefits to businesses, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) stating as far back as 2013 that by 2030 mental ill health will take over the top spot for the global leading cause of death.

Plus, according to research by Deloitte in January this year, mental ill health costs UK businesses £45bn a year, yet with every £1 a company invests in employee wellbeing they get a £5 return on investment.

If it makes so much business sense to prioritise employee wellbeing, why are we still seeing statistics like the above?

Going beyond the legal aspect of an employers 'duty of care'

First originating in the 19th Century the employers 'duty of care' is now part of The Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It's a legal term and in summary states it is the duty of every employer, in so far as is reasonably practical, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees which should include:

  • the provision and maintenance of safe plant and systems of work;

  • the arrangements for the safe use, handling and storage of articles and substances;

  • the provision of health and safety information, instruction, training and supervision for all employees;

  • the provision and effective maintenance of a workplace environment that has adequate facilities and arrangements for the employees welfare at work;

  • the maintenance of any place of work under the employers control and the provision of safe access to and egress from;

  • the provision of a written health and safety statement and policy outlining the organisations arrangements for the safety and welfare of its employees; and

  • to have safety representatives amongst employees who they shall consult with when making and maintaining safety arrangement's, and ensure these measures are promoted and developed with employees to ensure the effectiveness of any measures.

There are many booklets and codes of practice to help employers to decipher what their legal responsibilities are as every company is different, so there's no one size fits all!

However, as it's a legal requirement it's often seen as a tick box exercise by businesses to ensure they meets their legal 'duty' obligations, and risks are continually assessed through regular health and safety risk assessments.

Isn't it time we focused on the ethical aspect of an employers duty of care?

When you care for someone you ensure you protect them and provide them with what they need, and your actions demonstrate how much you value them. In fact you will go above and beyond for them because you care and this cultivates a meaningful social connection.

So by focusing on the care aspect, an employer can clearly demonstrate how much they value their employees by taking measures to protect their mental health and wellbeing, and by providing them with what they need based on suitable risk assessments. This also supports employees to take ownership of their mental health and wellbeing, which in turn increases the value they add in their role.

How do employers focus on the 'care' aspect of their duty of care?

Stress risk assessments

Stress in the workplace causes psychological harm to employees, that left untreated leads to physiological symptoms. So by safeguarding your employees mental health with stress risk assessments that you action, you are committed to protecting them from harm with appropriate measures.

Here are some typical areas covered in stress risk assessments to ensure appropriate people management practices are in place, as poor working practices leads to work related stress:

  • Clearly defined job roles showing responsibilities and key outputs - so employees know what is expected of them.

  • Clear processes for business tasks - so employees can do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

  • Management competencies - so that as an organisation you are clear on the culture you want to cultivate and ensure your managers lead and support them teams appropriately.

  • Adequate on the job training - so employees build competency in their role and can progress in their career.

  • Performance feedback processes - so employees can continually develop and receive recognition for their contribution.

  • Flexible working practices - to allow employees to achieve more holistic life integration, rather than keep work/personal life separate which leads to a constant juggle for some work/life balance.

  • Clear equality, diversity and inclusion policies - so employees are protected from discrimination, bullying and harassment.

  • Clear communication strategies - so employees are kept informed on the latest business news, progress towards business goals with an opportunity to input into goal setting and share their ideas or concerns.

  • Clear wellbeing strategies - so employees understand what support is available to them if they suffer from mental or physical ill health, or to support their wellbeing and have input into so their individual wellbeing needs are met.

As you can see managing stress in the workplace is very much focused on embedding the right organisational culture through good people management and systems of working.

If you want to find out more about stress risk assessments which I include as part of my HR & Wellbeing Audit for SME's, book a call.

You can also find out more on stress risk assessments via the Health & Safety Executive: https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/risk-assessment.htm

Wellbeing/Wellness Action Plans (WAP's)

Whilst there needs to be an organisation wide approach to wellbeing covered in stress risk assessments, a WAP highlights individual wellbeing needs and empowers employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.

The forms are completed by the employee and then discussed with their line manager or a Wellbeing Coach such as myself, in order to address their wellbeing needs to enable them to function fully in and outside of work. WAPs drive home the need for a holistic approach to employee wellbeing, as work is just one aspect of a persons life. We can't be well at work and unwell outside of work, we are one person and people need to be their authentic selves in all areas of their life to experience wellbeing.

By using WAP's as part of your normal working practices, not just when someone is experiencing mental ill health, you can focus on helping employees to do well, feel well and stay well and cultivate psychological safety by having regular open discussions about wellbeing.

To create a Wellbeing Action Plan for your employees and support the implementation of this process as part of your people strategy, to include staff and management training just book a call.

You can also find out more information on the MIND website: https://www.mind.org.uk/workplace/mental-health-at-work/taking-care-of-your-staff/employer-resources/wellness-action-plan-download/

Final thoughts

I feel it's an understatement to say that now more than ever we need to focus on mental health and wellbeing, and I know many businesses are focused on keeping afloat during tough economic times, but we mustn't forget the human element and cost.

Gradually implementing a wellbeing strategy into the workplace will step by step strengthen organisational resilience to move through this pandemic more successfully.

Most businesses have managed to swiftly move to checking employees physical health for COVID19 - we need to move equally swiftly to check employees mental health and implement appropriate measures!

Having worked in HR for 12 years and successfully leading projects for Investors in People and Workplace Wellbeing Charter accreditations, I have created Your Wellbeing Dept to help SME owners to implement a people strategy that cultivates wellbeing, and to get started would conduct a HR & Wellbeing Audit to propose the plan to move forward.

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