How employers can promote workplace wellbeing

How employers can promote workplace wellbeing

A year on from the Government review that recommended better mental health support in the workplace, we speak to Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, the mental health charity, to find out what employers can do to help tackle poor mental health and promote good wellbeing in the workplace… 

What is ‘workplace wellbeing’? 

Mental wellbeing is how you feel and how you are coping with everyday life. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and it isn’t static, it can change by the year or by the hour. By ‘workplace wellbeing’ we mean how you think, feel and behave in your work environment. Given how much of our lives most of us spend at work, workplace wellbeing plays an important role in shaping our general overall wellbeing. 

Is a lack of workplace wellbeing due to stress?

Stress can affect workplace wellbeing, but it isn’t limited to that. It might be that someone is experiencing anxiety generally in their life, or depression, or any number of mental health problems, often in combination. Work-related stress can, of course, exacerbate other problems. But, even if it doesn’t, many people will be experiencing mental health problems throughout their lives and recognising that in the workplace can make a big difference.

It’s nearly a year since the government review, Thriving at Work, which revealed that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem fall out of work every year, with a cost of up to £99 billion to the UK economy. Did those findings shock you?

It’s a shocking statistic but, unfortunately, not surprising. There has long been a stigma surrounding mental health, particularly within the workplace. Although things are starting to improve, many employees still don’t feel able to speak openly about our mental health at work. Mind recently surveyed more than 44,000 employees working for employers taking part in our Workplace Wellbeing Index and found that around 50 per cent said they’d experienced a mental health problem in their current role, and only half of those had talked to their employer about it, suggesting that as many as one in four UK workers is struggling in silence. If people aren’t able to talk, things can get worse, which can lead to ‘presenteeism’ – whereby employees go to work even when they have mental health problems severe enough to warrant time off – and even falling out of work altogether. The cost of poor mental health at work is far higher than the cost of implementing wellbeing initiatives, which are often small and inexpensive. Adjustments such as offering changes to start and finish times, changes of roles and responsibilities, and flexible working hours can make a huge difference. It’s positive that people are feeling increasingly open about their mental health, but there is clearly a long way to go. 


How important is workplace wellbeing? For example, the human cost and the impact on families.

It’s very important, for a number of reasons. Mental health can affect, and is affected by, a number of factors, including employment, debt, finances, housing and relationships. Unemployment is a risk factor for worsening mental health, as are financial difficulties that are more likely to face those who have fallen out of paid work. But our mental health can also be affected by our workplace. If work is one of the things contributing to your mental health problems, working for an employer that takes workplace wellbeing seriously can have a significantly positive impact on you. This includes ensuring staff have a good work/life balance, and we want to see senior staff setting good examples by not routinely working over their contracted hours when possible.
There’s also a strong business case for promoting and investing in staff wellbeing. According to analysis by Deloitte as part of ‘Thriving at Work’, every pound invested has a return of between £1.50 and £9. Prioritising employee mental health sends a message to your staff that their contribution is valued, and is associated with improved productivity, retention and morale, and reduced absence. 
As well as the financial argument, employers have a duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities. A mental health problem is considered a disability by the Act if it has a substantial, adverse and long term effect on normal day-to-day activities. Legal obligations aside, looking after the wellbeing of your staff is what you ought to be doing as a responsible employer.

The review also recommended better mental health support in the workplace, advocating “mental health core standards” that all employers can adopt, including providing a mental health at work plan. Employers may have the best of intentions implementing new standards but where do they start? 

Mind’s research found employers saw the benefit of introducing new standards for mental health in the workplace, but one in three didn’t know where to start when it came to finding the information they needed. Sometimes employers are so fearful about getting it wrong that they do nothing, but that’s the worst thing to do. We’ve been working with the Royal Foundation, Heads Together and 11 other bodies to launch Mental Health at Work. This online gateway allows all employers – including line managers – to go online, enter a few details about the size and type of their business, and have access to resources and training that will help them introduce new workplace wellbeing policies and support methods. 

One of the standards is to encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling. How do employers go about creating a culture of openness in the workplace about mental health problems when it is still surrounded by stigma?

One of the best ways to combat the stigma still surrounding mental health is to openly talk about it. If someone feels able to open up about their own mental health, that can inspire others to do the same and it helps normalise the issue. It’s good to remember that if you’re struggling with poor mental health, you’re not alone. Mind research has found that around half of us (48 per cent) have experienced a mental health problem in our current job. In terms of creating a culture of openness, we want to see employees talk about these issues, from senior leaders to more junior members of staff. Whether or not people disclose their own experiences will be very much dependent on the culture of the organisation. Employees need to know that if they do come forward, they’ll be met with support and understanding, rather than facing stigma and discrimination. We are making progress – a growing movement of more than 800 employers in England have now signed the Time to Change employer pledge. This is a great first step on the journey to creating a mentally healthy workplace, and employers who’ve pledged vary from FTSE 100 companies and leading retailers to government departments and local authorities. 

Is it important for employers to not feel daunted and remember that prioritising the mental health of their staff is an ongoing commitment and changes aren’t going to happen overnight? 

We recognise that when it comes to changing organisational culture, change doesn’t happen overnight, and that it’s a journey towards creating a mentally healthy workplace. It can take time to introduce and embed new policies, but even making small changes can make a difference. For example, letting an employee know that it’s OK to take time off work due to problems with their mental health, as they would with their physical health, can help give space to recover. Or ensuring managers feel skilled, confident and equipped to talk to staff members about their mental health needs can begin a process of dialogue and increase a sense of wellbeing. It’s also really important to have the buy-in from senior staff that mental health at work is a priority. This will help ensure policies are properly embedded and adhered to throughout the organisation so that employers’ approaches to promoting good workplace wellbeing don’t appear tokenistic or ‘box-ticking’.

Are there simple measures that employers can take to send a clear message that they value their employees? What are they?

One of the first things an employer can do is make sure people know that they can raise issues about their mental health without the fear of a negative response. Regular catch-ups with managers can be a good way to begin this process. A good way to send a message to your staff that they are valued is to invest in their wellbeing. Practical solutions such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), flexible working hours, buddy systems, subsidised gym membership and exercise classes, cycle to work schemes and season ticket loans can all make a big difference. Finally, Wellness Action Plans (WAPs) are a simple, useful tool that can be found on the new Mental Health at Work gateway. Jointly drawn up by managers and staff, they help facilitate conversations about mental health, identify unique triggers for poor mental health and what helps people stay well. 


Have you seen an improvement in recent years/since the review? Are more employees able to talk about their wellbeing and mental health?

It’s been around a year since the ‘Thriving at Work’ review was published, making 40 recommendations. There have been some really positive steps forward already. The review made recommendations to the government both in terms of influencing policy but also in their role as an employer. We regularly meet with both civil service and NHS leaders to monitor progress on implementing the standards. The civil service has committed to achieving both the core and enhanced standards set out in the review. It has designed a Mental Health Support Sense Check to help their departments self-assess how well placed they are to meet the standards set out by ‘Thriving at Work’. They hope this will help build a collective picture of how the civil service measures up to the standards, so that departments can be supported in sharing best practice and identify any shared needs for improvement and where wider support would be of value. 

NHS England has launched a Health and Wellbeing framework within which the core and enhanced standards are embedded. During its development we met with NHSE to provide feedback, including the need for them to ensure that they have clear indicators to measure progress against what is set out in the framework. 

The City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) Thriving at Work guide details how members including banks and legal firms can implement the recommendations to come out of the review.

Should more be done so that staff who need to take time off due to stress or mental health problems are treated exactly the same as those who take sick leave for a physical health problem, such as back or neck pain? 

We want employers to view physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick. Staff who need to take time off work because of stress or depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems such as back or neck pain. Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off. Mind’s research found that more than eight in ten people (84 per cent) would continue to go to work when experiencing poor mental health while only just over half (58 per cent) would go to work when experiencing poor physical health, so we clearly have a long way to go when it comes to tackling ‘presenteeism’ – coming to work when you’re not well enough.


How is Mind helping? (Workplace Wellbeing index - a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff.) 

Mind has recently curated a Mental Health at Work gateway, funded by the Royal Foundation and produced in collaboration with 11 partners, to offer employers and workers free, readily-available and comprehensive information on wellness and promoting good mental health in the workplace. In addition, we offer a range of free resources for employers and employees, available at, bespoke training courses including mental health awareness training for managers, and our Workplace Wellbeing Index, which helps employers find out where they are doing well and where they could improve their approach to mental health in the workplace.