Recent Acas research sheds light on how changes to our working environment can have an impact on our mental health.

Rachel Pinto, Senior Research Officer at Acas, examines what employers can do to improve the mental health and well-being of their staff, especially during times of change.

There are very few certainties in life, but, in the public sector, there is one thing we can be certain of: work is changing. With the government’s digital agenda and the prevalence of flexible working, new ways of working are becoming the norm. Running in parallel to this, there is an increasing number of cases of poor mental health at work.

One of the factors that can contribute to this is the workplace. After all, we spend a significant part of our lives working, and in some cases, worrying about work in our personal time. Therefore, it’s important to promote a positive culture of mental health in the workplace and support employees when times are tough.

New research from Acas and Essex Business School focuses specifically on drawing learning and insights from employers who have had to manage staff with mental health issues. While the research shows that there is no set response or one-size-fits-all approach in terms of dealing with mental health issues, there are four key areas for employers to consider and act upon:

Communicating well during times of change

Often when big changes are made in organisations, it’s for improved efficiency or financial gain. While it is important to make business improvements, we all need to understand how things, like new ways of working, restructuring programmes, and cost efficiency drives, can all breed uncertainty and anxiety for staff. Therefore, giving staff the opportunity to voice their opinions on changes and responding to concerns before it escalates is a useful starting point.

It’s also important not to underestimate the impact of day-to-day challenges such as staff shortages and the introduction of new technologies.

As well as recognising the need to communicate well with staff, attention should be paid to how stresses at work are likely to affect staff in different ways, especially if they have a history of mental health problems or complicated situations.

The importance of approachable line managers

Employees interviewed as part of the research repeatedly emphasised the importance of being able to communicate with line managers about their situations. This is significant, as individuals are more likely to disclose mental health conditions and seek extra support if they have a strong relationship with their manager in the first place.

From the manager’s perspective too, a good working relationship can help to spot the signs when something is wrong and make reasonable adjustments where possible. This can help minimise disruption to work plans and enable staff to work at the best of their ability.

The research also highlighted the importance of changing line manager mindsets to be supportive of a positive approach to the management of mental health at work. It also recognised any learning and development needs managers may have.

Appropriate support for staff returning to work

For staff returning to work after a long period of absence, it can feel like a daunting experience; therefore, return to work policies need to be tailored to the individual and flexible where possible.

Employees interviewed as part of the research who had mental health issues and had taken a related leave of absence suggested an array of enablers that helped them to return to work. These included: being given access and time to see health professionals, such as their own GPs and counsellors; Employee Assistance Programmes to signpost them in the right direction; not being pressurised to return to work early; being given time to become re-orientated back to the workplace; and reasonable adjustments being made, for example changes to hours of work and avoiding sources of stress such as long commutes.

Similarly, just because a member of staff has returned to work after experiencing poor mental health, it doesn’t mean that they do not need continuing support.

Using employer outreach or trainers with lived experience

There is a wealth of support and information for all managers, regardless of your level of experience. The organisations used as part of the study had often drawn on multiple sources of guidance to help manage staff undergoing mental health difficulties.

Using employer outreach activity was another useful way of developing skills and enabled trainers with lived experience of mental health conditions to share their insights on how managers can support their staff.

Change is clearly something that all organisations need to go through at some point, but how employers manage, communicate and respond to these changes can have a big bearing on employee well-being at work, and, in turn, affect how productive your organisation is.

Acas has produced guidance, research and case studies on mental health at work to raise awareness and share learning to help employers manage changes for the better.

Further Information: www.acas.org.uk

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