Joe Glover from our HR Consultancy, Capital People, takes a look at the Thriving at Work report and gives his views on what employers need to do to implement it. 

This year, an independent review (commissioned by the Prime Minister) looked at how organisations can help employees with their mental health – so that they can remain in, and thrive at, work. 

Poor mental health at work has a big human cost – with knock on effects for society and the economy. The review looked at how employers can improve their practice, and support managers to play a key role. It sets out the following core standards. 

The Thriving at Work six core standards:

1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan 

2. Develop mental health awareness among employees

3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling 

4. Provide employees with good working conditions 

5. Promote effective people management 

6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing 

By following these standards, employers can structure their approach to mental health policies and initiatives.

But, we all have a part to play in promoting positive mental health.

Breaking down the barriers

The report talks about a number of ‘obstacles’ that inhibit positive action to promote mental wellbeing. Whether you’re an employer, a manager, or a leader, ask yourself how well you engage with your employees on a basic level. When was the last time you asked:

• How’s your day going? 

• How was your weekend?

 • What are your plans after work? 

Small questions like this lead to wider conversations, and relationships develop as a result. And, that’s important, when, according to the report, only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager. Building a rapport, and developing a relationship, can be the first step in supporting your employees at work.

Conversations by their very nature are reciprocal. Have we lost the ability to converse meaningfully in the digital age? Many of us would like a Facebook post or retweet a hashtag to show our support for mental health. But, if a colleague came to us for help, could we meaningfully respond when it isn’t as simple as tapping our phone screen?

That being said, the largest obstacle managers face in holding meaningful conversations with their employees can be the job itself. In fast-paced working environments, with a focus on everyday responsibilities, awareness of positive mental health might be left on the back-burner.

According to the report, employers want to do the right thing – but line managers lack the training, skills, or confidence required to effectively support others at a very basic level. 

Managers spend around eight hours a day, five days a week just metres away from their employees. But, how much of that time can they spend ‘managing’ their team? Without the time and space to manage, support will remain an afterthought.

Basic level support 

Basic level support can be as simple as an informal, private conversation at the first sign of distress. Just asking whether everything’s okay, or if they’d like to have a quiet chat, can make a difference in improving team morale and productivity. 

Once this basic level of trust has developed, it’ll be much easier for the ‘core standards’ to become engrained in an organisation’s culture. Things like ‘routinely monitoring employee mental health’ will be second nature.

The ‘medicalisation’ of human issues, and problems that become defined as medical conditions, can also be an obstacle in encouraging positive mental health.

If an employee called in sick, or left work with a headache or a cold, most managers wouldn’t hesitate to provide advice – albeit without a medical degree. By comparison, how many would feel qualified to assist an employee struggling with stress or depression? 

An employee suffering from anxiety may call in to work sick, without giving the real reason for their absence – instead providing a ‘real illness’ that they think their manager will understand.

At the other end of the spectrum, an individual who’s having a ‘bad day’ or a ‘tough week’ at work might refer to themselves as ‘depressed’ and ‘stressed’. There’s a big difference between feeling down, and having clinical depression. And this ambiguity can be difficult for managers to understand and tackle. 

Putting employees first 

For the report to work, organisations must put employees at the starting point of any development – and keep them at the centre of their initiatives. Processes and policies will always change, and they’ll have to adapt to all business needs.

It’s vital for employers to tailor their mental health standards to their employees’ needs. Standards shouldn’t be a to do list – they should be a bespoke, developed methodology.

 And, although the report puts the obligation on managers and organisations, we all have a responsibility to promote positive mental health in one another.