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This February marked the third annual Time to Talk day, organised by Time to Change, which resulted in nearly 85,000 conversations about mental health in workplaces and organisations. The support shown for this event highlights the growing importance of mental health awareness in offices, and allows us to start a new conversation about employee wellbeing.

In a recent survey by Mind and YouGov, it was revealed that over half the workers polled (56%) viewed their work as very or fairly stressful, showing that stress in the workplace is too important to ignore. If you pair this with the HSE statistic that 23.3 million working days are lost each year due to employee absence, which equates to £2.8 billion lost to UK business, you would agree that illnesses- mental and physical-are costing businesses millions.

Armed with all this information, employee wellbeing should be at the top of an organisations priorities right? Well, sadly no. There is still a stigma around employee wellbeing for a lot of Senior Management Teams. It can be viewed as wooly and pandering by some senior management teams, particularly those who believe that people need to ‘toughen up’.

This is why we believe that initiatives purely aimed at improving wellbeing can often be unproductive, the good news is that by understanding what lies beneath employee illness issues you can instead develop a culture that is healthy and promotes health without losing any business success.

Some of the key causes of employee illnesses can be easy to spot, and the solutions often seen obvious in retrospect. The behavior of the leadership team is a key trigger to stress in the workplace, as how they behave, to employees, each other and themselves will drive the behavior of others looking to get on. Being a leader is much like being a parent, in that your kids (employees) will do what you do, not what you say. The solution to this? Develop the leadership team. It may sound obvious, but a lot of senor people don’t want to be developed, either through arrogance or fragile egos. Many HR Professionals view this as a block they cannot overcome, but there are some key ways to move past this. If you put their dysfunction to them in tangible ways they can grasp, like lost hours spent in terminal meetings, time wasted fighting fires or money lost in severance, they recognised the business implications straight away. Don’t think ‘training course’. A leadership expert who can weave awareness and development into the day, whist discussing business issues, can facilitate strategy days.

Dealing with mental health issues has often proved one of the hardest areas to address within employee wellbeing because of the stigma attached to it. Yet, there are some simple strategies you can put into place to support them and the organisation. It is important to train your leaders and managers to spot the signs of stress, depression and anxiety in the workplace, as there are key early indicators, such as dips in outputs, changes in appearance and behavioral attitudes that can often be misread as other issues. There isn’t an expectation for manages to become counselors, but it is really helpful for them to be able to spot the early signs and signpost people to appropriate help.

If you don’t have an employee assistance programme to signpost people to, put together some resources people can use to go and get help. Even a simple factsheet with options like seeing your GP or the UKCP and BACP websites to find private counsellors can be really helpful as people often don’t know where to start.

Employee wellness can become part of your organisational culture, part of your L&D Strategy and part of your Talent Development Strategy. It’s a much more sustainable way of embedding wellness an avoiding a sickness culture.

There are some key elements to implementing this successfully:

Choose your providers carefully

Do a review of your current and potential L&D providers, how focused are they on general wellness? Do they recognise the issues we raise here? Are they ‘well’ themselves? I would caution against hiring anyone who’s so rushed off their feet they always sound stressed when you speak to them. If they can’t sort out their own issues, how can they teach your staff. It also helps to have people on board who have sound psychological training, particularly for senior development programmes

Step by Step

Big initiatives can sound great and look great but if you want something sustainable it’s best to introduce things one step at a time. Start with something you know you can manage and resource and then build it. Trust is often lost in organisation because big shiny initiatives get announced and then fade fast.

Develop your own understanding of wellness

If you are armed with sound knowledge about the link between stress and illness and dysfunctional culture and sickness then you can make well informed decisions with confidence. Training for yourself in an applied psychology like NLP, CBT or TA can give you a lot of knowledge in a short space of time.

By Karen Meager and John McLachlan, authors of ‘Real Leaders for the Real World’, and founders of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy