Managing people

Strategies for creating a mentally healthy workplace

It’s World Mental Health Day on 10 October, and as awareness around mental illness grows, it’s a good time to discuss how companies can make mental wellbeing a key part of their overall employee wellness initiatives.

This is becoming even more crucial in South Africa, which was recently ranked as the lowest country when it comes to mental wellbeing in the latest Mental State of the World report. The report assesses the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) of countries against 47 elements. Reasons for South Africa scoring the lowest MHQ of 46% (down from 56% in 2020) include high unemployment and low education rates, and feelings of fear and anxiety.

There’s more to mental health and wellbeing than feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious at work. In fact, people face various mental health challenges, making it even more critical for HR to communicate with and get to know employees.

In this blog, we explore mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and how HR can support employees to create a healthy and positive working environment.

Mental health versus mental wellbeing: What’s the difference?

Although closely related, mental health and mental wellbeing are not the same.

Mental health refers to a person’s ability to cope with everyday stresses and has to do with their internal state of mind. For example, someone diagnosed with depression might need the support of mental health programmes, counselling, or medication to help them cope.

Mental wellbeing, on the other hand, refers to the external factors that could impact a person’s state of mind. For example, a person’s environment, such as working conditions, relationships, and confidence in their abilities, could impact their mental wellbeing through feelings of fatigue of being undervalued and unappreciated.

Are South African businesses doing enough?

A recent survey by South African management and technology consulting firm, IQBusiness, revealed that:

  • Over 66% of office-based employees experience extreme stress, anxiety, and depression,
  • 92% are concerned by the state of the country’s economy and the potential implications for them and their loved ones, and
  • Over 69% are mentally affected by the state of poverty in the country.

Another survey found that:

  • 44% of respondents think that a company’s wellbeing and mental health initiatives will impact their job searches,
  • 44% feel more under pressure since the start of the pandemic,
  • 37% feel that their work-life balance worsened,
  • 35% feel they get less credit for their work, and
  • 23% feel that their manager is neglecting their mental health.

There’s hope for HR

As an HR leader, you have the most influence over employee health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to encouraging the C-suite and other leaders to prioritise it.

What’s more, there’s a ton of research proving the benefits of holistic employee mental health and wellbeing. These include increased productivity, employee retention, engagement, and collaboration.

But how can you support all your employees when stresses keep adding up?

First, it’s important to understand what causes work stress. So, look at your organisation’s communication, support structure, career development opportunities, autonomy, workloads, and payment structures, and identify areas where you can make things flow better.

Asking your employees for feedback also helps to determine where they are mentally and what they might need from the company.

When it comes to promoting mental wellbeing in the workplace, the International Labour Organization lists five main elements for HR professionals to consider:

  1. Time structure: Clear and realistic time structures give employees room to plan their tasks, which minimises feelings of pressure and anxiety.
  2. Social contact: Although this is not always physically possible in remote work set-ups, there are virtual tools that make social contact possible.
  3. Collective effort and purpose: Employees appreciate seeing that the business and HR department makes an effort to care about and address issues.
  4. Social identity: People spend most of their time at work, whether physically or cognitively, so how they are treated at work has a significant impact on how they define themselves.
  5. Regular activity: Employees want to feel included in the workplace, whether it’s by asking for feedback or having a seat at the decision-making table.

Tips for promoting employee wellbeing

Every business is different, which means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing stress, burnout, and mental issues at work. However, the good news is that you can try a few techniques, and at the very least, your employees will notice and appreciate the effort!

Apart from regular check-ins, frequent recognition, more breaks, and increased engagement initiatives, here are a few specific initiatives to try:

  • Mental health training

Both employees and employers can benefit from training programmes that help them identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental struggles. The more equipped employers and HR are to identify red flags, the better they’ll be at addressing the problems.

  • Designated wellbeing professionals

Hire a trained external or in-house professional to collaborate with HR to develop programmes, policies, analyses, and best practices across the organisation. This gives both HR and employees confidence knowing that support is readily available whenever.

  • Integrate wellbeing into company policies

The moment wellbeing becomes ingrained in the company’s policies, people will be more likely to follow and appreciate them. For example, there’s a phenomenon called “Helper’s High” to refer to the positive emotions people feel when they help others. In making volunteering part of performance KPIs—for example, giving employees Paid Time Off to do charitable work—you can give employees a dose of feel-good emotions during working hours.

  • Use cloud HR software

Cloud HR technology frees up HR’s time to focus on strategic imperatives of the business instead of mundane administrative issues, while self-service tools empower employees to own their personal data, ultimately driving accountability and autonomy. In addition, it centralises data, which supports efficiency, reduces manual or mundane tasks, and gives employees more time to focus on work, reducing stress in the process.

Technology also increases real-time collaboration and data tracking, giving you more insight into employee wellbeing—even in a remote or hybrid working environment.

Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace have become equally important to physical health and wellbeing. And the more your employees see that you’re making an effort, the happier your workforce will be.