5 Traps Preventing Employers Empowering Workplace Mental Health

Whilst employers are figuring out how to stay in business following a period of time where many have been forced to cease trading, perhaps a couple of their biggest challenges right now are; understanding the current wellbeing of their employees and the re-building of the psychological contracts they have with their employees. In this article I want to address 5 common traps employers fall into when it comes to empowering workplace mental health and wellbeing and provide a suggestion or two of how to avoid or escape them.

1.    The mental ill-health trap

Too many employers are reactive, some non-responsive, to mental health because they fall into the trap of only seeing one end of the mental health spectrum. It’s like trying to solve physical health by only ever trying to treat physical ill-health, which is a paradigm society moved away from years ago, yes there’s significant improvements still to make, but ultimately, people understand to be physically healthy and prevent physical illness, you need to live in certain ways. When it comes to mental health, for the most part, society and many workplaces live in an unhealthy paradigm where focus on the mental ill-health end of the spectrum has become a trap preventing workplaces, and individuals, from thriving; keeping them in a state of surviving which is actually exasperating the situation. Mental Health is a spectrum which ranges from unwell too thriving regardless of the circumstances, and employers need to be focussing on how we can empower mental health rather than only supporting mental ill-health. Employers and workplaces need to focus on how they can empower employees to thrive at work moving them in an opposite direction away from poor workplace mental health. This approach includes proactive, reactive and supportive interventions to mental ill-health but it expands far beyond it.

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Workplace Mental Health Spectrum

Take a few minutes to review the below definitions, you will see, that a focus on mental health, rather than mental ill-health or disorders, is a completely different approach which is proactive and whole-person in nature.

Mental health “is a state of mental and psychological wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, and can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (World Health Organization (WHO)) 

Mental Illness: Mental disorders comprise a broad range of problems, with different symptoms. However, they are generally characterized by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others. Examples are schizophrenia, depression, intellectual disabilities and disorders due to drug abuse.”

(World Health Organization (WHO))

Much of the current workplace approaches and responses to mental health focus on; raising awareness to mental ill-health or disorders i.e. spotting the signs when something is unhealthy, providing support in how to respond to someone displaying mental health problems or offering professional support when mental ill-health has been identified. Whilst these are needed in any approach to empowering workplace mental health, they are not sufficient on their own, and do not take workplace mental health in an opposite direction to its current trajectory. I am not saying that employers and workplaces stuck in this trap are not doing good things, although some are not! I am saying that this is a trap if you want to have a workplace that is thriving despite current and future circumstances. An ‘empower mental health approach’ in the workplace is proactive in developing and building up its employees to thrive no matter what, this will include mental ill-health interventions.

"Employers and workplaces need to focus on how they can empower employees to thrive at work moving them in an opposite direction away from poor workplace mental health"

2.    The Fear Trap

Our default position in the face of risk, threat or danger, is fight, flight or freeze. A key emotion driving these responses is fear. The reason for this is preservation and protection. The brain must keep us alive, safe and comfortable at all times, this is its primary function. There is very little which could be a bigger threat to this natural state of humankind, than the unknown. 

I have spoken to employers who have said to me “Don’t you make this all a lot worse by shining a light on it?” We all know people, you may be one of them, who still think mental health is only a ‘thing’ because we have put ‘names’ to it, which by the way is a sign of living in a mental ill-health paradigm. Could you imagine someone saying that about cancer? You only have cancer, because you’ve called it that. The research and evidence of mental health and ill-health is substantial. However, you do not need to be a neuroscientist to appreciate that our brains are a living organ in our bodies and it is the hub for everything that goes on. So, just like our lungs, hearts or livers etc. it has functions, and the healthier it is the better its functionality.

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Fear

What is it that we potentially fear with mental health? This is a subject in itself worthy of articles, research and much discussion. However, when it comes to the workplace I believe there is fear of mental ill-health from; a lack of awareness and acceptance, the size and nature of responsibility, decision-making and ultimately a perceived lack of solutions. All of this stems from not really understanding the challenge, which links back to our first trap. 

When it comes to fear of the unknown and change with mental health, think about it like this, you are already dealing with it, for as long as the human race has had brains we have been dealing with mental health, the choice is not about will you ‘shine a light’ on the issue, that is already happening. Everyone is already talking about mental health. The choice you face is between action or inaction and which part of the problem will you shine a light on, so you can find the right solutions? It’s natural to be afraid, especially in the case of mental health, but we don’t need to be and there is plenty of high-quality support out there to get you to the right solutions. The best way to deal with any fear is to be honest about it, and to take a carefully thought out and intentional step by step approach to overcoming it.       

"...for as long as the human race has had brains we have been dealing with mental health, the choice is not about will you ‘shine a light’ on the issue, that is already happening"

3.    The Positivity Trap

This is where our well-intentioned workplaces exist on different levels. From the proactive approaches to mental ill-health through to proactive mental health approaches. One thing workplaces in this trap have in common is everything has to be positive, because "positivity is the best remedy to, or most effective construct of mental health". Sadly, these employers, perhaps not straight away, will eventually see this strategy does not hold up. 

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Be Positive

The positivity trap is where employers approach everything with positivity; all problems (sorry they don’t have problems, they have opportunities), concerns (I mean solutions) and personal issues (which have no place at work) must be addressed in positive ways. I know one international employer who has what they call ‘wow chats’ with their employees to discuss how employees are feeling at work. The problem with the positivity trap is that it can create, as a good friend of mine used to say, ‘false positives’. 

Being positive is an experience based on the emotions we feel, by feeling good, we can perform at our best. But the positivity only, or the heavy reliance on being positive, approach to mental health is not only something that plasters over cracks, it actually exasperates the problems. This trap can present itself in various ways.

What we really need is real and honest cultures that are built on values which cultivate togetherness. Being positive about the negative only breeds suppressed negativity, and whilst a business may seem successful with this culture for years, eventually the cracks will grow to a point where they bring the ‘house’ down. An elite athlete does not achieve a high-performing lifestyle through positivity alone. They can tell themselves all day long that they are good enough, they just need to believe etc. but if they are not confronting their weaknesses and their developmental needs or the times when it’s just too much, then their competitors who do are the ones that win. No matter how hard you try to keep employees only positive consistently, you will fail! Our minds are wired to the negative, because believe it or not, negative keeps us safe and assesses risk effectively. It’s a healthy combination and utilisation of positive and negative emotions that empowers people to thrive.

Employers and their workplaces should focus instead on producing positive emotion inducing experiences. Positive emotions are key to empowering mental health, they can repair the detrimental effects of negative emotions. They should do this while empowering employees to feel comfortable and safe about the negative inspiring people to be honest and real. The approach to negative emotions or negativity should be one of responsiveness and empowerment, not suppression. As employers build a real and honest culture, they develop a level of trust and loyalty that empowers and inspires the workplace to perform.

"The approach to negative emotions or negativity should be one of responsiveness and empowerment, not suppression"

4.    The Responsibility Trap

Employers in this trap are bogged down with whose responsibility employee mental health and wellbeing is. Empowering workplace mental health is everyone’s responsibility, the employee and employer. The cause for this trap can be related to some of the other traps discussed here, and a number of other factors. However, I want to focus on two factors only here; perspective and focus. As the employer how much you see workplace mental health as integral to your business growth and thriving culture, will determine how much you perceive it to be your responsibility or the responsibility of the employee, and what you focus on. 

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Happy Employees

At EPIC 4LIFE we train a ‘You First’ culture in the workplace. At the heart of this is each individual taking personal responsibility for empowering their mental health, wellbeing and performance. We also train this at the organisational level. To employers we say you need to adopt a ‘You First’ approach to empowering workplace mental health. Whether individual or organisational, the outcome is the same; to thrive regardless of what happens. If you want the outcome, you have to take responsibility. By shifting to this paradigm employers take ownership of the workplace culture they are creating as opposed to leaving it to others to create.

To illustrate this, I will draw on a significant observation I have taken from my work as a performance psychologist in elite sports. I speak with many former and current professional footballers; I will often ask them, ‘what was it that was different about you which led to a professional career in football?' Their answers vary for obvious reasons, but one common response I receive every single time is; ‘I took personal responsibility for my improvement, I didn’t wait or rely on others to make it happen for me’. I also talk with many professional football coaches and ask them ‘What does a player need to be a successful professional?’ Again, I receive various answers, but, one common response is; ‘A healthy support system or network around them, to help them deal with everything that happens, because the life of a professional footballer is brutal’. 

When everyone’s perspective becomes one of 'taking personal responsibility' or 'You first', whether for themselves or those they are supporting then you can escape this trap. It sets you free to collaborate and flourish. When your focus is on thriving; empowering people becomes everyone’s responsibility. As everyone takes responsibility for empowering workplace mental health, we can shift our focus to those factors that produce a 'thriving no matter what' outcome, and inspire the performance desired.

"When your focus is on thriving; empowering people becomes everyone’s responsibility"

5.    The Operational Cost Trap

The charity Mind report that at least one in six workers experience common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. The Mental Health Foundation report 1 in 7 people experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%). Deloitte & Mind published a report called ‘Mental Health and Employers, Refreshing the Case for Investment’ in January 2020. They reported that there had been an increase in annual costs to employers, up to £45 billion, for mental health interventions in the workplace. This is due mainly to a significant increase in presenteeism (working when unwell and being less productive) and leaveism (improper use of leave). Using conservative assumptions, they estimated a total annual cost to businesses of up £45bn, comprising £7bn in absence costs, £27bn – £29bn in presenteeism costs and £9bn in costs of staff turnover. They also suggested that there were other indirect costs to employers of poor mental health, such as the adverse impact on creativity, innovation, and other employees. 

Deloitte & Mind (2020) estimated the costs to employers of poor mental health across employees in different age groups. They found that costs increase up to the age 30‐39 as earnings potential grows, peaking at £2,068 per person, and then starts to decline falling to £609 per person for those aged 60+. However, these figures mask the cost per employee as a proportion of earnings: this is much higher for 18‐29-year olds, at 8.3% of average income, compared to a weighted average of 5.8% of income across all age groups. With the prevalence of mental ill-health ever increasing in the rising generations, this trend looks to be continuing in the workplace.

When we look at these figures and similar findings, we can see just how significant the challenge of poor workplace mental health is. However, the most concerning thing about this, is that it is all pre-Covid19 findings. Poor workplace mental health has dramatically increased during this period. Research carried out by LinkedIn, in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, found that 56 per cent of 2,000 adults surveyed said their mental health had deteriorated since lockdown began on 23 March. The poll also revealed that on average, Britons have been working 28 hours of overtime per month - the equivalent of four extra days.

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Workplace Mental Health Costs

You do not need to be a fortune teller or a financial advisor to forecast that the cost of mental health interventions in the workplace, which was already on the increase since 2017, is now increasing at a faster rate. The trap here for employers is treating this as an operational cost to rather than a business growth investment. By treating workplace mental health purely as an operational cost, you deal with it in a transactional way. You run the risk of not monitoring intervention impact, optimising return on investment (ROI), purchasing the wrong interventions and/or making problems worse. Employers need to switch mindset from operational cost to business growth investment. As they do this they will optimise the ROI, make more informed as well as strategic decisions and create a tidal wave of empowering workplace mental health that inspires emotionally resilient and mentally healthy employees, creating a thriving culture no matter what happens. 

Mind & Deloitte (2020) reported that on average employers obtain a return of £5 for every £1 (5:2:1) invested. However, there is a wide spread of returns from 0.4:1 all the way up to 11:1. Interventions that achieve higher returns tend to have the following characteristics: 

• They offer a large‐scale culture change, or organisation‐wide initiatives supporting large numbers of employees.

• They are focused on prevention or designed to build employee resilience. 

• They use technology or diagnostics to tailor support for those most at risk. 

As you reflect on this type of investment to empowering workplace mental health, ask this key question; 'are you in an operational cost or business growth and investment paradigm when it comes to workplace mental health?'

Firstly, mental health needs to be seen as an outcome, rather than a means to an end. Secondly, a culture built on values that are shared throughout the company and empower mental health constructs, will inspire a variety of performance and workplace outcomes regardless of circumstances. Third, organisations must adopt a ‘You First’ approach to empowering mental health and inspiring performance by taking personal responsibility for empowering employees.

"By treating workplace mental health purely as an operational cost, you deal with it in a transactional way"

Picture: EPIC 4LIFE Inspire Change

Employers and workplaces should reflect on their position within each of these traps, if you are free of them congratulations. If you are not and would like support in working out how to escape the traps then get in touch, I would be happy to see how I and EPIC 4LIFE can support. A quote we have coined at EPIC 4LIFE is:

 “Our mental health, emotional wellbeing and performance has little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our focus”

My passion is empowering people and inspiring change to create emotionally resilient and mentally healthy workplaces as they achieve their visions.

Timothy Pattenden

Performance Psychologist | EPIC 4LIFE Co-Founder

EPIC 4LIFE currently provide online coaching programmes, training, webinars and partnerships in workplace mental health EPIC 4LIFE Website

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