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Reclaim your lunch break – supporting employees mental health in the workplace

Following World Mental Health Day in October and International Stress Awareness Week in November, new World Health Organisation guidelines have been released to assist employers in supporting mental health in the workplace. The guidance covers subjects ranging from manager training for mental health to recommendations for individuals returning to work after a mental health related absence. The guidance makes key reading for managers and HR professionals alike.

Whilst still seen as very much a taboo subject, especially for more senior individuals in business, everyone struggles with mental health or stress related issues at some point. Whether those struggles relate to work; are confined to personal circumstances; or more topically financial, employers need to be more aware of how such issues affect employees and look to give advice and support wherever possible. While awareness of employee wellbeing has come a long way in the last 10 years, there is still a lot more that can be done.

The latest WHO guidance has revealed that an estimated 15% of working-age adults have had a mental disorder during their working lives, usually extending to depression or anxiety. Separately, other reports reveal that 25% of people always feel lonely or unsupported. In the modern age of social media people are feeling more disconnected than ever.

Most companies are now seeing employee wellbeing as a top “social” priority when it comes to their ESG strategies however small employers don’t always have the resources to fully implement such a policy.

So, what small steps can you take to support your employees in the workplace?

  • Mental health first aiders – Having trained members of staff as mental first aiders gives staff someone they can go to for a sympathetic ear and be signposted to appropriate support both within the workplace and externally. The training is low-cost and shows that your business is taking mental health in the workplace seriously. Trained first aiders receive regular training to spot signs of mental ill health and offer first aid support. A lot of the time, people just need to talk; without fear of criticism, without fear of judgment and without fear of being told what to do.
BPE has several Mental Health First Aiders.  We asked them to explain why the job is so important to them:
“For me the most important part of the role is to destigmatise the topic. Mental health issues directly affect 1 in 3 people in the UK, and indirectly affect considerably more, yet the main reaction to someone with those concerns are embarrassment or shame. The stigma of being labelled means that people are reluctant to address issues that can (and invariably will, if left unaddressed) have a huge and lasting negative impact on a person’s quality life”.
  • Reclaiming the lunch break - Did you know that a years’ worth of lunch breaks equates to 30 days of extra annual leave? That’s almost 6 extra weeks of annual leave. Yet more than half of us do not take a full lunch break.

How many people reading this eat their lunch at their desks or go for a quick 10-minute walk around the block before logging back on and getting back to work? And how many can say they even take the full hour when working from home? Employers should encourage employees to take their full uninterrupted lunch break wherever possible.

  • Time out - Sometimes people need to take time out of the business to re-group, gain perspective and to recover. The UK has one of the lowest statutory annual leave entitlements in Europe and whilst annual leave is meant for rest and recuperation, often annual leave entitlement is interrupted or simply not lengthy enough.

Employers may wish to consider offering employees periods of sabbatical or extended annual leave entitlement.  If an employee is showing signs of struggle or has had time off with mental health issues, work with them, and their GP/Occupational Health to assist a phased back-to-work plan so that when they are ready to come back into work, they are at their best.

  • Hybrid Working - While hybrid working is a preferred option for many, working from home can be a double-edged sword. Yes, it gives flexibility and can improve the work-life balance, but for many, especially those who live alone, it can cause disconnectedness and loneliness. So, encourage people to come into the office, introduce pivot days and let people reclaim their lunch breaks.

It's important to remember that our mental health is as important as our physical health; often physical ailments can impact our state of mind and vice versa. It’s time that we end the stigma surrounding mental health issues and remind ourselves that it is OK to not be OK.

Supporting staff is not a choice. Businesses should educate themselves on how to support employees who are struggling, and constantly work to destigmatise mental health struggles. BPE’s Employment team is experienced in working with businesses to educate staff on equality, diversity, and inclusion, as well as working to introduce policies to help make the workplace a safe place for all.

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of articles only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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