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10 ways companies can improve mental health support

Illustration of employer hands holding up employees
pch.vector | freepik

Tips & tricks by Andy Killworth

Mental health support is becoming an increasingly important aspect for employees and jobseekers. Andy Killworth provides 10 ways companies can meet the growing demand and spearhead the movement toward better workplace wellbeing.

What questions do you have for us?” I asked an interviewee recently.

What do you do to support your staff with their mental health?” was his reply.

A few years ago, he would probably have asked about the compensation package. Nowadays people have more holistic expectations, driven by a higher prioritisation of their wellbeing.

Mental health in the workplace is more important and cared about than ever – both for employers and employees.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years. In the last couple, questions like the one above have become more frequent. Today’s talent pool isn’t just interested in a great salary and a fancy office with free fruit– they want a place where their wellbeing is prioritised.

As we see a shift in the expectations of the younger workforce, it’s vital for employers to understand why supporting mental as well as physical wellbeing is a win-win situation.

Deloitte estimate that the cost of mental ill health to employers in the UK alone is £56 billion per year. This is a huge cost and is in context of 1 in 4 people in the UK suffering a mental health problem every year. The wider context is how the Covid crisis has created a huge increase in mental health issues, as well as a huge backlog in people waiting to be treated. Employers not willing to invest in mental health support in today’s job market will pay the price in terms of lost working days, higher employee turnover, increased recruitment costs, and damage to their brand. Here’s what companies can do to get ahead.

1) Know that employee expectations have changed

In recent years, I’ve seen a huge shift in expectations from potential employees. For context, I work in SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). This is very much an employee’s market, with skills and talent very much in demand. This is echoed in other digital marketing channels, with demand outweighing supply.

This year it’s almost become the norm to see candidates reaching offer stage with 1-3 competing offers from other companies, as well as counter-offers from their existing employer.

With that in mind, having a truly great offering is more important than ever. However, we need to think holistically about what that offering is.

Whilst monetary rewards are obviously important (base salary, bonuses, stock options, health cover), people are increasingly focused on things like culture, flexibility, happiness and wellbeing. I think a side effect of the Covid pandemic has been employees realising they value their time, their mental health and sense of belonging over an office with a pool table or beers with the team on a Friday.

I’m setting this change as context because it’s vital companies adapt to it. Today’s talent pool is savvy, confident and assertive. Failure to flex to what they want means a failure to attract the top talent.

Here’s the themes I’ve heard come up in the last year or so:

  • Flexibility (time, place) – people value the positive impact to their mental health to work where and when suits them

  • A ‘safe space’ – people want to be themselves and to be able to relax and speak their minds – this reduces anxiety and stress

  • Wellbeing – people expect companies to have decent benefits packages (e.g. private health care, counselling etc.) which cover both physical and mental health

  • Culture – people want a place that’s inclusive, diverse and fun to be in. They want to be surrounded by happy, motivated people where they can learn and grow

  • Engaging, interesting work – people want to feel positive about their work – they want to feel valued, that their work has a purpose – this improves how they feel about themselves, their team and company

So what can employers and leaders do? The first thing is to be truly bought in to the idea. Without this, it’s just lip service and some initiatives that probably end up going nowhere.

2) Lead by example

One strategy I’ve seen work with great effect is managers and leaders openly talking about their own mental health experiences. By setting an example, this shows our staff that it is genuinely OK and safe to do so. At iTech Media we got some of our leadership team to do a short video talking about their experiences. This covered things like depression, anxiety, stress and impostor syndrome, and they were very well received.

Not only does it help normalise speaking about mental wellbeing at work, but it helps humanise us as leaders.

We can also open up conversations about mental wellbeing in 1-2-1s and ad-hoc conversations. Having very candid replies may not come quickly (it can take time to build a relationship with real trust and feeling of safety), but will pay dividends to both employee and employer.

The more we speak about mental health, the more normal it becomes for everyone to speak about – it’s a snowball effect. We have a responsibility to our staff to do so.

3) Be bold, be public

If you’re going to work on mental health support in your company, shout about it. Make a big deal out of it internally and externally. Make sure people know that you mean it and that you’re committed to it – then follow through on it.

4) Piggy back off public initiatives

Getting your company to have an open and supportive culture about mental wellbeing isn’t easy. It helps to combine your internal initiatives with ones happening externally. Here are a few of many to consider:

Why piggy back on these? It makes the conversation easier – rather than starting from scratch, you’re using the brand awareness and normality of the external initiatives to help kickstart your own.


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5) Train and support your managers

We can’t expect managers (especially new in their career) to be instantly happy and comfortable having discussions about mental health. I very much recommend companies invest in training for them. Mind is just one of the organisations who can provide this.

6) Provide mental health first aid training

Mental Health First Aiders are a great way of providing initial in-house support for staff struggling with their mental wellbeing. MHFA leads the way on this. It’s important to remember that MHFAs aren’t intended to be counsellors or therapists. What they do offer though is an initial point of contact for people to reach out to.

7) Create guilds and safe spaces

At iTech Media we have ‘guilds’ – kind of like a society within a company; a mix of people across the organisation coming together to work on a particular topic. Our mental health guild has been pushing through initiatives, organising MHFA training, and running events in the company to increase awareness.

This has proven really useful and something any company can easily set up.

Safe spaces or sharing circles are another option – these can be run live or online – in this format people are allowed to talk with no questions or judgement.

8) Use external services

Companies providing support and training for mental wellbeing at work can be a huge help. It’s increasingly common to see job adverts listing these kinds of collaborations as a benefit for employees. Here’s some of the organisations your company could consider:

  • Sanctus – Sanctus provides coaching for employees. It’s important to note that this isn’t counselling or therapy – the aim is to provide coaching that is focused around mental wellbeing and self care. Sanctus also offers coaching to managers and has a large portfolio of companies it's worked with

  • TheSelfSpace – SelfSpace makes finding a therapist easy. Its services aren’t just for employers, you can also use it as an individual. The idea is for companies to fund counselling for their staff; they then can log in and book a therapist without having to pay and claim it back. At the time of writing, SelfSpace had 50 therapists to choose from, covering all kind of backgrounds, specialties and disciplines

  • HeadSpace – You may well have heard of HeadSpace – it has an amazing consumer product based around mental wellbeing, especially sleep and meditation. HeadSpace has now branched out into its work product – mainly employers being able to fund HeadSpace subscriptions for their team

  • Spill (US) – Spill is similar to SelfSpace in that it can offer counselling. What it also has is a way of embedding mental health check-ins into Slack or Teams – companies can then act on the data to understand how their staff are feeling

9) Have patience!

Cultural change doesn’t happen quickly. It requires persistence and a willingness to adapt. Embedding mental wellbeing as a priority in your company means being able to evaluate and flex when things aren’t working.

It can also be scary – not all of us are used to speaking about mental health, or feel comfortable with these kinds of conversations. It takes practice, support, patience and persistence.

10) Isolate and deal with root causes

It’s all very well running initiatives and setting up groups. However, if there are things in the company causing mental health issues, these need to be tackled as a high priority. These might include:

  • Burnout

  • Unrealistic or stealth expectations

  • Excessive workload

  • People not feeling they can speak their mind

  • Too many hours worked

A company that’s truly committed to this will tackle these issues with honesty and courage. It’s not easy to admit there are issues, but staff will value it being dealt with.

Failure to address these will inevitably show up in things like attrition, employee engagement scores, Glassdoor reviews and more.

Invest in employee mental wellbeing – you won't regret it!

Mental wellbeing has become something people value more, and have high expectations from their employers about it. Good culture, mental health and flexibility are increasingly big drivers in what candidates look for in a new job. Companies that don’t want to invest in this area will be at a disadvantage to their competitors, and risk higher turnover and absence.

Hire and retain the best talent by genuinely caring, supporting and providing for your staff – they are the most important resource you have!

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