Is there a link between employee engagement and mental health?

A study by Happiness Works in March 2017 showed that nearly a third of UK employees suffered from stress at work. While all jobs have their ups and downs, many can take this in their stride - but if left unchecked it can manifest into something deeper.


More than ever before, employers need to do more to ensure that employees have the support they need to take care of their mental health. This can involve offering employee assistance programmes - a really effective way to provide access to personal counselling and mental health support. But it's also important to focus on the root causes of poor mental health at work.

Just like physical health, nobody is immune to a bout (or indeed an ongoing battle) with poor mental health. Long working hours, unrealistic workload expectations and poor relationships with colleagues can all play their part in creating or deepening issues with anxiety, stress, depression and self-esteem, no matter how high up the career ladder.

A problem that's on the up

According to a study by Business In The Community, 15.2m days of sickness absence across the UK in 2013 were caused by everyday conditions such as stress, anxiety or depression - a dramatic increase from 11.8m days in 2010.

While even the best boss in the world may not be able to cure everybody's problems, a sympathetic and open approach is key to ensuring that you are doing all you can to support your staff and, in turn, helping them to feel valued, productive and well-balanced.

It may even make you a more desirable prospect to new recruits. A study by MIND shows that 60% of employees would feel more motivated and more likely to recommend their organisation as a good place to work if their employer took action to support mental wellbeing.

It's clear that there's a link between mental health and engagement at work - and vice versa. Getting it right can have a big impact, too - FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10%. So, what do employers need to do to make sure they're doing the best by their people?

1) Let employees know that a mental health sick day is as important as a physical one

A kindly letter from a boss to an employer requesting a personal day went viral recently - evidence of how de-stigmatising mental health in the workplace can make it easier for others to come forward and address the aspects of their mental state that may be holding them back.

The maintenance of good mental health is really important for ensuring colleagues can perform at their best. One day lost to self-care will harm the business far less than an ongoing period of high stress and discontent.

Letting your employees know that you understand the need to prioritise good health will let them know that they work in a progressive environment where they are able to speak up about their troubles without fear of judgment - after all, poor mental health is thought to affect up to one in six workers.

If an employee comes forward to request a mental health sick day, or you suspect they may be in need of one, try not to pry into their affairs. Instead, use supportive language to let them know that you are invested in their happiness and consider offering a softer approach to their return to work.

This could mean coming back on a Thursday instead of a Monday to ease the process and build up to a full week. Or it could mean delegating one client to somebody else. Keep an eye on their progress and avoid the temptation to mollycoddle or slash responsibilities dramatically - a discreet meeting on changing certain roles will be much kinder and appropriate than reinforcing the ideal that they're being punished for speaking up.

2) Put support systems in place and make them easily accessible to all

While we all long for an office environment where everyone co-exists on a level of close-knit camaraderie, it's still true that many employees simply won't feel comfortable disclosing health or personal matters to fellow colleagues - especially if they're new to the team.

Use notice boards, company intranets, team training days and personal one-to-ones to remind your workforce of opportunities they have to discuss their personal wellbeing confidentially, whether that be a local community event or a hotline number for counseling.

Promote fitness through gym and ride to work schemes, or consider a mindfulness retreat instead of your usual team day out. By bringing these opportunities and outlets to the fore, it will help normalise the idea of mental health care. Make it a pre-emptive measure rather than an afterthought.

Smaller gestures are also just as important - make sure your team leaders are encouraging their teams to work sensible hours, take full lunch breaks and utilise their full annual leave. These are all rights they're completely entitled to, but often the first things to be sacrificed during particularly busy periods.

3) Mix things up

Allow work-from-home days, a flexible workspace setting and the occasional office treat - mixing up the mundane even slightly can make a serious difference to those suffering with depression or simply feeling a little down by the repetitive nature of the working week.

If somebody seems demotivated, consider evaluating their responsibilities. They could be overworked, or perhaps it's the complete opposite, and they need a new challenge. Treat your employees as individuals and involve them in creative decisions to keep up morale.

4) Check-in in person

Try (where possible) to communicate face-to-face with employees on a regular basis. As the working day gets busier we often become guilty of leaving all of our communication to email, but this can be a recipe for miscommunication.

The lack of nuance that comes from dealing with employers exclusively via email can often make anxiety issues or mental health of those who are inclined to overthink the written word worse, even if it was typed perfectly innocuously.

Meetings in person for a one-to-one can help avoid any misinterpretation, and assures your employees that you care about them as people enough to make physical time for them. This doesn't need to be a lengthy meeting or an opportunity to put people on the spot - simply a way to check in, ensure needs are being met from both ends, and see if there is anything to be done to improve their work life in any way.

Staff surveys, focus groups and review meetings all play their part, but don't underestimate the value of asking your staff's opinion in a more informal setting - it's all part of making them feel respected and valued.

James Malia is the director of employee benefits at Sodexo.

This article was provided by Sodexo Glow.


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