Six ways to screw-up your staff’s mental health

A-mental healthA growing number of organisations are taking the mental health of their staff seriously and implementing programmes to improving mental wellbeing in the workplace.   However, if you are feeling this has all gone too far, here is our antidote – a six point guide to messing-up your staff’s mental health and boosting your sickness absence figures:   

1.  Allow workloads to become unreasonable 

Most people like to keep busy and will willingly put in some extra effort to address short-term peaks in their work load, like month end.  So, to really stress them you need the feeling of having too much work to do and not enough time to do it to be pretty much constant.  This isn’t that difficult to do as left unchecked the natural effects of mission-creep and Parkinson’s Law will tend to increase workloads.  Add in the effects of some cost-cutting, a bit of down-sizing and some ill-thought through initiatives and you’ll be onto a winner.  While you may regularly doll out new work, try and avoid ever sitting down and reviewing you staff’s workload with them.

2.  Put them to work in an unhealthy environment

This one is quite easy, as mostly it just needs a bit of neglect, a lack of imagination and some penny-pinching.   Make sure there is no natural light and, if it is a job that requires concentration, arrange for plenty of ambient noise.  Keep the place untidy, don’t pay any attention to ergonomics and don’t provide any space where they can get away from the workplace.

3.  Be inflexible over how and when they work

Reducing the level of autonomy over how and when the job is done generally increases stress levels.  So, strict procedures that don’t leave any leeway for initiative – even for something sensible like helping a customer – are good.   You should be equally strict about working hours. They may have young children to bring up or elderly parents to care for, but don’t entertain any requests for flexible working.

4.  Encourage a long-hours culture

Being inflexible about their contract hours, doesn’t mean you can’t get people to work longer.  It’s actually quite easy to do as most people start out motivated, committed and, particularly in the UK, inclined to put the hours in.  And, if you have done No.1 well, they’ll have to stay on to get things finished anyway.  The downside is you have to lead by example, so you’ll have to get used to being the first in the morning and the last to leave at night.  But hey, work-life balance is for wimps, right?

5.  Avoid the human touch

You may well be an altogether reasonable human being, but it is best not to let them know it.  So, don’t spend time getting to know them, don’t praise them and, above all, don’t ask if they are OK.

6.  Keep changing

These days change is the new normal. This is great news, as frequent, poorly-managed change is a sure way to stress your staff.  So, if you can maintain a near constant state of change through a series of top-down “restructuring”, “transformation” or “re-engineering” projects you’ll be on to a winner.  If you can inject some uncertainty into the process, e.g. over who’s going to be going, who’s staying, all the better.  Whatever you do, don’t bother with any of that time-consuming consultation and communications malarkey, it will just undo your hard-work.


Of course we’re just kidding – no one sets out to screw-up their staff’s mental health, but it is easy to do through a lack of awareness.  That’s one of the reasons why we developed our Mental Health Awareness for Managers course.



Five of the best mental health videos

Videos can be a great way of communicating the the issue of Mental Health at Work, but it can be tough finding good ones.  Too many of them follow a similar format of talking heads (sufferers or experts) with a downbeat sound track  – not the sort of thing to grab someone’s attention.  However, there are some good ones out there – we’ve scoured to internet to find the best of the bunch.

No.1  The Power of OK

Produced by SeeMe Scotland, this is by far the best mental health video we have come across.   It’s fun, fast-paced and powerful, and a refreshing change from the “talking heads” format.  We really like the rhythm of the language and the images.   We’d be equally happy showing it to a Board of Directors or a bunch of brickies on a building site.  It does contain the f -word and other explicit language. but we think it is appropriate and justified.

No. 2 The Big Cheesy

The follow on from the Power of OK, focusing on the manager’s role.  Equally well done.

No. 3 Mental Health at Work: Recognising distress

While not in the same class as The Power of OK, this video from the Mental Health Foundation for Royal Mail is well-produced and does a good job of encouraging people to talk about their mental health problems..  As well as being an expert, the narrator, Isabelle Goldie has a splendid Scottish accent which makes you sit up and take notice – think Jean Brodie.

No. 4   Ruby Wax: What’s so funny about Mental Illness? TED Talk

Ruby wax gives an insight in into living with depression in her inimitable style. 

No. 5  Living with a mental disorder

OK, this is one of those talkingheads with a down beat sound track videos, but to our mind it does the best job of putting into words (and graphics) what it is like to experience stress, anxiety, depression and OCD.

Six things you should be doing to improve mental health in the workplace

MH1The business case for addressing mental wellbeing in the workplace is now well-established.  It is well-understood that mental health problems are relatively common and are a significant cause of extended sickness absence.  But what should you be doing to improve things?  Here are six things that should be near the top of your To Do list to improve mental health in your organisation.

1. Talking about Mental Health

It’s a culture change thing. To improve mental health at work the issue has to become less of a taboo subject – people have to get used to talking about it.  So, anything you do to raise awareness of the issue and make talking about it the norm, is going to help.  Ways of doing this include:

  • Regularly covering mental health issues in staff newsletters.
  • Using World Mental Health Day (10th October each year) to make a splash about the issue. 
  • Circulating some of the excellent  videos from See Me Scotland, such as  The Power of OK  (contains explicit language).
  • Talking about mental health at staff meetings/briefings.

2. Training Line Managers

There are at least three reasons why Line Managers have a  key role to play in improving mental health at work:

  1. Their behaviours and the way they manage have a direct impact on the mental health of their staff.
  2. They are likely to be first to identify if an employee is having problems, e.g. starting to show the symptoms of stress.
  3. They will be on the front line of helping/supporting employees that do have a problem.

Without some basic training Line Managers are likely to struggle to engage with the issue.  Training needs to cover:

  • Common mental health conditions
  • What impacts mental health
  • Warning signs to look out for.
  • How to talk to staff about their mental health.
  • Management competencies for good mental health

The HSE have a useful Competency (self-assessment) Indicator Tool for Line Managers.

3.  Reviewing work loads

Workloads have significant impact on stress levels.  So make sure there is an effective framework in place for regularly reviewing staff workloads at appropriate intervals.  This may take the form of weekly or monthly one-to-one meetings.

4. Encouraging exercise

Exercise not only improves physical health but has a significant positive impact on mental wellbeing. Ways of promoting exercise include:

  • Encouraging staff to cycle or walk to work by installing secure bike racks, making information on cycle routes available and providing showers if possible.
  • Allowing flexible hours to accommodate exercise at lunchtime.
  • Allowing /encouraging desk bound staff to take breaks and walk around.
  • Partnering with local gyms or sports centres.
  • Holding interdepartmental competitions (rounders, volleyball…) and set up company sports teams.
  • Entering teams for charity runs.

5. Talking about mental health in the staff reviews

Performance reviews/appraisals provide an opportunity for managers to discuss issues that impact on mental health with their staff:  If it is appropriate, the reviews should include discussion issues such as:

  • work load
  • working hours and work life balance
  • relationships with colleagues
  • stress levels

6. Changing how you change

Change and the way it is managed has been shown to have significant impact on the mental wellbeing of staff.   Frequent and poorly managed change can significantly increase stress and anxiety levels.  However, the reality is that, across both the public and private sector, the frequency and pace of change is steadily increasing.  Consequently, being able to manage change well is becoming a core capability for almost all organisations.  When planning and undertaking change, the impact on the mental health of staff should be an issue for consideration.  The adverse impact on staff’s mental health can be reduced by involving staff in the decision making progress from the earliest opportunity, maintaining good communications throughout the process and thinking carefully about the impact on workloads.

Wellbeing: tips for starting a workplace programme


Following on from our What the heck is “wellbeing”  article, here are our tips for starting a wellbeing at work programme.

 1. Don’t rush it

With so much to go at, it’s tempting to rush into a wellbeing programme and start kicking-off initiatives left, right and centre.  But if you want your wellbeing programme to have traction and longevity, and not be written off as just another HR fad, it is worth taking the time to do your research, think it through and plan the implementation up front.

2. Before you set off, work out where you are

Before setting out on your wellbeing journey you need a clear idea of where you are starting from.  You need to establish a baseline from which you can identify your priorities and measure your performance.  Good ways to establish this baseline include:

  • Collating as much wellbeing data from existing source as possible, such as: sickness absence rates and costs, accidents/incidents, referrals to Occupational Health, employee retention, amount of training and the results of appraisals.
  • Conducting an employee survey.  To  provide the data you need to form an effective baseline and identify priorities, the employee survey needs  to be wide-ranging, covering areas  such as:   physical health (BMI index), smoking and alcohol consumption, exercise,  motivation and recognition,  work load, working environment,  relationships (colleagues, managers), communications,  mental health (stress, anxiety) and work life balance
    There are now a number of proprietary wellbeing surveys available that cover the whole of the  agenda and can be tailored you organisation.
  • Benchmarking against a published wellbeing standard, such as the  Wellbeing Charter 

3. Develop your own wellbeing programme and priorities

While published wellbeing standards and frameworks can be really useful, you don’t have to be constrained by them.  There is merit in working out what wellbeing means for your organisation and developing your own programme, based on a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.  Equally, the wellbeing agenda is so large and wide-reaching, it is difficult to address it all at once. From the baselining exercise you will be able to identify what the priorities are for your organisation and what areas of wellbeing you want to focus on.  You don’t have to do it all at once.

4. Make sure you mean it

You will have a greater chance of success if you and your organisation recognise that wellbeing is a strategic programme.  The implications of this are:

  • it is long-term, i.e. it needs to be planned, funded and sustained over a number of years;
  • it should  be to be integrated into the overall business plan, rather than an HR add on, so it should be clear how the wellbeing programme relates to the overall business objectives;
  • it will need support, buy-in and engagement from across the organisation.

5. Gain top level commitment and engagement

This item appears at or near the top of the “to do” list for any change management programme, and it’s particularly true for wellbeing.  It is important that the Chief Executive and the senior management team:

  • understands what wellbeing is all about;
  • recognise its place in the strategic plan;
  • are willing to endorse it and lead by example.

Things that help with this include:

  • developing a clear business case for the programme;
  • collating peer information – what similar organisations have done or are doing;
  • using appropriate communication to engage senior staff.

You need to be able to give a clear and credible answer to the question “How is the wellbeing programme going to improve our bottom line?”

6. Identify and involve your stakeholders from the start

If people are involved in planning and designing the programme, they are much more likely to actively support it.  Key groups that you may need to think about include:

  • Senior managers
  • Frontline managers
  • Health and Safety and Occupational Health staff
  • Staff
  • Unions

Take the time to do genuine consultation from the start, i.e.  “This is what we are planning, what do you think?”  Give serious consideration to setting up a Wellbeing Project Steering Team, with representation from all the stakeholder groups, to lead and co-ordinate the programme.

7. Get the communication right

Successful wellbeing programmes depend on the engagement of a large number of people, so good communications is critical to success.   Tips include:

  • Take the time to work out a clear and easy to understand statement, free of HR -speak,  of what wellbeing means for your organisation.  You don’t even have to use the word “wellbeing”, for example, BT branded their programme “Work Fit”.
  • Use language and messages that are appropriate to your audience and its culture – what might work in a desk-bound call centre probably won’t resonate on a construction site.
  • Make an effort to make your material relevant and engaging – there are an awful lot of terminally dull wellbeing policies out there – make it fun, human and inspiring.
  • Use a range of media and methods to get the message across – face-to-face, social media, intranet, newsletters, email video.