How to Advocate for your Mental Health in the Workplace

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Advocating for your mental health at work can feel like a huge step. There’s still a lot of stigma associated with mental health. And many of us may worry that telling our employer about our mental health or a diagnosis may cast doubts in our workplace about our abilities. For this reason, many of us are likely to give a physical health problem as an excuse for needing time off work. And often don’t disclose a pre-existing mental health condition or developing mental health condition to an employer. But, employers do have a duty of care to their staff and workplaces should be inclusive environments.

Employee Rights in the Workplace

A diagnosis of a mental health illness is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Under the act, employers cannot discriminate against an employee due to any disability; including mental health. It also requires employers to provide reasonable adjustments to help someone stay or return to work.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development states:

Employers are encouraged to promote good mental health and provide support for employees who are experiencing mental ill health including anxiety or depression

The echo the Equality Act 2010, and further encourage employers to make adjustments for those who mental health may be poor. Even if they do not consider themselves as qualifying under the Equality Act 2010. They acknowledge that mental health and mental ill health is often a hidden disability and that stigma continues to be pervasive. Bearing the nature of mental health and illness in mind, combined with the impact of mental ill health on the workplace and employers. A 2018 study by CIPD found poor mental was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in UK workplaces. And that, stress-related absences were on the rise too.

There is also a financial toll. The Stevenson Farmer review in 2017 analysed the cost of mental illness to employers. And found mental illness could cost up to £33-42 billion a year due to absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover. Thus, the need for workplaces to take a preventative approach to workplace wellbeing is clear. Taking an active roll in ensuring staff mental health is boosted rather than debilitated by their workplace. A stress risk assessment is even required by law to ensure there is an organisational framework to manage employee’s risk of stress.

For a 6 Hour Work Day Fairy tale read here.

What Might Happen

Advice about talking about your mental health at work is usually directed to a manger or member of HR. However, if one feels that their workplace is not open to conversations around mental health or mental ill health. Or are concerned that they will face stigma or discrimination. This can be a hard first step to take. It may be worth considering if their is a peer or colleague in the workplace who could help. You may be able to talk to them in a first instance. And hear their advice of who may be most receptive. They may also be able to help you advocate for yourself and support you through the process of speaking to your manager or HR. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. And you should be entitled to have someone with you, to support you, if you wish.

A manager or member of HR should provide you with a space to be heard and listened to. This is your opportunity to outline what the problems you may be facing are, what their impact is or may be. And even what support would help you to continue in role. You may wish to practise what you will say, perhaps with someone else, before the meeting. Make sure you are prepared and be aware of your rights. You may be eligible for or wish to speak to a mental health advocate. Whilst you may not want to start a conversation by mentioning your rights. As this could make the recipient defensive. It may be worth having note of them in case you do have to remind your employer or you feel like your concerns are being dismissed.

For Best Practise Supporting Someone in Distress read here.

The Role of Manager

The CIPD in their Mental Health at Work documentation encourage managers to explore how they can provide support or reasonable adjustments in any problems which are work related. We know a predictor for workplace stress is management style. A manager who takes time to get to know their staff and makes time for them, is more likely to notice a change if an employee begins to struggle. Likewise, they are more likely to be approached by their employee at the start of the problem when steps may be easier to take.

It is best practise for mangers to encourage the staff member to make an appointment with their GP if they haven’t already. And make them aware of other resources that may be available to them. In particular, if the workplace have any workplace wellbeing options such as a Mental Health First Aider, an Employee Assistance Programmes or any psychosocial education or self-care options available in lunch breaks etc. As well as any stress-related or mental health related policies that the workplace holds. They may also wish to support their colleague to discover other pathways for support or they may already be aware of signposting which may be helpful.

For The 11 Tips You Need for Effective Listening read here.

For How to Navigate the Need to Feel Heard read here.

Action Plan

It may be appropriate or encouraged to create an action plan together. This may include considering any possible triggers for stress and signs they may be struggling. What the possible impact could be on their work if this occurs. As well as resources for support that the employee may be interested in accessing or have found useful in the past. This could include the number of someone to call, either someone they know personally, professionally or a helpline. And other supports they may access or activities they may find helpful.

This action plan should be agreed between the person, their manager and other necessary colleagues, for example HR. A follow up meeting should be agreed to check in with how the action plan and any new measures are going. And if anything needs to be changed.

How to Make a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Given that 1 in 4 UK adults will experience a mental illness in a given year. Plus, the financial cost of mental ill health to employers. Combined with the ongoing stigma and that mental illness is often a hidden disability. And that many of us spend much of our lives in our workplaces and amongst our colleagues. It is crucial that workplaces take preventative measures to ensure staff mental health and wellbeing. As well as having clear policies and supports for those who experience a period of mental ill health.

Workplace Triggers

Workplaces can be high stress environments. So it’s vital that employers are aware of possible stress triggers and do stress risk assessments. Possible workplace triggers include:

  • working long hours
  • not having breaks throughout the day
  • unrealistic expectations and workload
  • high pressure environment
  • poor communication
  • job insecurity
  • lack of or inconsistent management
  • high risk roles
  • lone working

Whilst many of the above are common sense. They are also prominent features of many workplaces. And since Covid, many of us are working at home away from the support and camaraderie many find in an office. Some roles will certainly tick more boxes on the above list. And most roles will have times of high stress and pressure. This is often the nature of employment and can’t necessarily be avoided. But it’s important that employers consider when these high pressure times are. And ensure that colleagues know what their support options are; both in and out the office. As well as providing other opportunities to look after one’s mental health discussed in the next section.

For A Guide to Understanding Our Stress Response read here.

For Why It’s Stress Management Not a Cure read here.

Self Care & Other Supports

Mental Health First Aid

There is currently a petition to make it compulsory to have a mental health first aider in every office. We would expect an employer to ensure a safe working environment and provide physical first aiders and first aid boxes. The same should be true of mental health. And this is another area where we don’t have parity of esteem. A mental health first aider is trained on a Mental Health First Aid course.

The training is created by Mental Health First Aid England and numerous instructors train to lead these course. I am lucky to count myself among their ranks. A mental health first aider in the workplace is able to have conversations with staff who may have concerns about their mental health. They are trained to listen and respond including providing relevant signposting options and giving information to help soothe concerns. They are also trained to act appropriately in the event of a mental health crisis.

Employee Assistance Programmes

Employee Assistance Programmes are offered by many providers too. They have different packages depending on provider and what your company may be looking for. Included in EAPs is often resources for both physical and mental health. Some may include access to medical professionals. They also often provide advice on a variety of issues including financial issues, relationship issues, physical and mental health, gambling, drug and alcohol abuse etc. Employees are able to access these services confidentiality. The employer will receive a report of which services are being used but no which employee has used them.

Clear Communication & Role Modelling

Clear communication around mental health, stress, wellbeing and mental ill health have primary importance too. Employees who know that mental health is valued within an organisation and know that any concerns will be met with empathy and understanding. Are more likely to access support when they need it. Similarly, the knowledge that if you were to have a problem and could be open about it to your manage will offset many stresses and anxieties many of us may feel. Part of this communication is reminders around relevant policies, documents and support options. And ensuring employees have access to this paperwork.

But it is also about having a whole company approach. Telling employees that you encourage them to leave work on time, have frequent breaks and not to answer emails when at home or annual leave is great. But when senior staff constantly work over time, respond out of hours and rarely leave their desks; messaging is mixed. It inhibits staff from hearing the encouragement to look after themselves. They’re more likely to do as you do; not as you say. For some, it may even feel like a test.

For A Guide to Finding a Work Life Balance (& Avoiding Guilt!) read here.

Self Care & Education

Allowing staff the time for self-care whether through prompt leaving times or lunch breaks is key. And, as above, senior staff role modelling this is vital to encourage and ‘green light’ it for other staff. Employees may decide to actively encourage these activities by providing options for them in-house. Some companies may provide creative or exercise opportunities during lunch breaks. Whether a yoga, mindfulness or act classes. They may provide opportunities for staff reflection, particularly during times of change or high stress. Psychosocial education is also popular. With sessions being held in lunch breaks – although better to do it on company time! – to teach staff more about mental health, how they can get support, to manage their stress or how to look after themselves.

Workplaces will need to find their own place with the tapestry of mentally healthy workplaces. But there is certainly more each company and employer can do. As is so often the case, acknowledgement of mental health and mental ill health can’t be tokenistic. Celebrated as a one-off during mental health awareness week each year. There needs to be a consistent thread of messaging around looking after oneself. Managing ones stress. Support options available. And who to talk to if you need support. Combined these approaches can provide reassurance to any staff who may be struggling and ensure an earlier intervention for them. And overall better outcomes for everyone.

What are your thoughts on workplace wellbeing? Have you noticed a shift to more mentally healthy workplaces? Have you learnt something new from this post? We’d love to hear your thoughts so let us know below!

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22 thoughts on “How to Advocate for your Mental Health in the Workplace

  1. This is such an important topic that is so often disregarded as a relevant reason for sickness. Although I believe that there have been great progress in this area, there is still a substantial way to go. Posts like this really help to accelerate that progression! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Definitely there’s still room for progress. Hopefully things are getting increasingly better with people being more open to conversations about workplace mental health and willing to provide support.

    1. Yes! Sadly we still here of a lot of discrimination and stigma in the workplace. So knowing your rights and what you can expect from an employer is incredibly important.

  2. Such a good post! This is so important especially in the current times that we are living. You make some good points for consideration.

  3. Yes to all of this! I had a work induced breakdown over a year ago which resulted in having to take time off for a month. But after coming up with an action plan and finding support, I’m much happier in work now. Thanks for sharing this great advice!

    1. I’m so glad the action plan worked and things are better for you! An excellent example of when our mental health is properly supported in the workplace!

  4. This is a brilliant post and extremely relevant to me. A couple of weeks ago I admitted to my bosses that I was struggling with my mental health. It took me ages to gather the courage to do it but I am so glad that I did. It turns out that both my bosses had experienced the same thing previously and so were extremely understanding. One of my bosses is actually trained in NLP and my workplace regularly send employees to her. I’ve also been forwarded to the EAP, occupational health and my GP. It’s such a relief knowing that I can actually talk to them about the way I feel without any judgement.

    1. I’m so glad work were so supportive of you. It can be a massive hurdle to open up at work. I really hope you find the EAP and GP helpful.

  5. You cover this well. We all need someone to talk to at work who can help us understand how best to deal with anxiety.

  6. This reminds me of my article from last year on the same topic. It’s also great to see another blogger sharing mental health petitions, I have this one on my site too on my petitions page.

    The annoying thing about some of the roles I’ve worked in, like substance abuse recovery worker, is that they’re a caring roles that are grossly over worked it some terrible conditions. Care related work tends to have the least support for mental health, even though they have amounts the highest burnouts rate. That’s some really bad irony

    1. Yes, caring roles to seem to have incredibly high levels of burnout. And often the infrastructure to support staff is lacking! It’s definitely an area which needs more awareness and support!

  7. This is such an important topic. Its great that so many workplaces are offering more support for mental health but there are still so many that aren’t. I definitely think a mental health first aider should be compulsory in all workplaces.

    1. I agree Kelly! You wouldn’t work somewhere without a physical first aider. Investing in employees mental health just makes so much sense!

  8. This is such an important topic to discuss and I’m really glad you’ve written this post! This past year, I’ve really opened up about my mental health at work and it has helped me a lot xx

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