Employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace: everything you need to know

Employee wellbeing is vital for a happy and productive workforce, yet just 9% of businesses have a mental health policy in place

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Particularly following the advent of flexible working post-COVID, we’ve come a long way since the 16+ hour working days of the industrial revolution, when the concept of employee wellbeing was as alien as a daily shower.

It’s now widely accepted that happier people are more productive people, and that your organisation bears responsibility for employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace.

No matter what size your business, it’s never too early to put policies in place to ensure your employees have healthy and happy working lives.

During Mental Health Awareness Week, Startups.co.uk takes a look at initiatives that may be implemented to improve staff wellbeing, and why it should be top of your agenda.

This article will cover:

The importance of employee wellbeing and mental health in the workplace

According to oft-repeated statistics, a quarter of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives.

That’s 25% of your workforce that could potentially experience anything from depression to severe anxiety, bipolar to OCD, while working for your company. Whether brought on by genetic factors, experiences at work, or issues in their personal life, you have a duty of care towards your employees.

According to the 2018 health and wellbeing at work survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), mental ill health is now the number one reason for long-term absence (cited by 59% of respondents), followed by stress (54%).

And while absence in the UK is at an all time low (5.9 days per employee, per year), 83% of respondents said they or colleagues work when unwell – commonly known as ‘presenteeism’.

New research from Always Designing for People (ADP) found that 31% of workers wouldn’t feel comfortable disclosing a mental health condition to their manager, and another 61% don’t believe their employer is interested in their mental wellbeing (or is only superficially interested).

The research also found a distinct regional and generational divide when it came to being open about mental health.

London, where 75% would disclose a mental health issue, ranked highest, followed by the North West and North East (71%). The east of England (55%) and Yorkshire (63%) ranked lowest.

Generationally, more than three quarters (77%) of those aged between 16 and 34 would raise a mental health issue at work, in comparison with 51% of over 55s.

We need a culture change. Rather than people stoically soldiering on to save face, they need to feel comfortable taking the time to get better. Because a workplace full of people who are just trudging through the day feeling terrible is not good for anybody.

Hannah Meredith, health and wellbeing advisor at a major lead generation firm, explains why businesses need to pay attention to the wellbeing and mental health of their employees:

“From an output perspective, it is proven that you will get more productivity from healthy, happy employees. Employees are the building blocks of any organisation, and investesting in them makes business sense. I believe the ROI for wellbeing is honestly boundless when it comes to seeing the benefits of a happy workforce for a business.

“Secondly, from a more human perspective, I think it’s simply the right thing to do; to care for  your employees. Your workforce will spend the majority of their time at work, so businesses should feel a great sense of responsibility to care for their people and support their wellbeing in the best possible way.

“A business benefits because to put health and wellbeing and mental health on the agenda, and to have a dedicated policy or strategy in place, demonstrates that as a business you are committed to the welfare of your employees.

“At our company, this has really shown to engage employees in a positive way. Other benefits include a reduction in costs associated with employee sickness (whether mental or physical), so I think it is in a business’s best interest to have a strategy in place to not only reduce, but prevent these costs.”

Of course it’s not just your employees you need to look out for. In a recent survey, 55% of entrepreneurs said running a business has had a negative impact on their mental health. Read our guide on entrepreneurs and mental health here.

Workplace stress in small and medium-sized enterprises

According to research from Process Bliss, stress in startups and small businesses can often be more pronounced that it is in larger businesses.

43% of those surveyed said they had left a job because of work-related frustrations and stresses that were not addressed by management. This can cause or exacerbate more extreme mental health conditions.

The main issues with management were:

  • A lack of information or clarity when asked to do something
  • A lack of control over a situation
  • A lack of guidance or direction from management
  • Being unnecessarily chased by management
  • Being micromanaged

There’s an easy fix for most of these concerns: good management and processes. And from these responses, it’s clear that a happy medium between a lack of guidance and micromanagement is optimum.

That’s not to say that every employee will respond to the same style of management. The level of attention and guidance should be left to the discretion of an astute manager.

You can implement some quick fixes to alleviate stress among your team. The top three causes of stress-related absence in the workplace are:

  • Workload – make sure your team has a reasonable amount of work to manage in a given timeframe. Just because someone is working long hours doesn’t mean they’re producing quality work. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true
  • Management style – whether it’s you or a line manager, the kind of heavy-handed, hot-headed management mythologised by famously fiery CEOs and entrepreneurs isn’t necessarily going to get the best results from your employees. Funnily enough, the best way to give someone guidance and help them see your vision isn’t to scream at them
  • Work relationships – do you ever think how strange it is that you spend more of your waking life with your colleagues than with your family and friends? That means team members can have a big impact on each other – each and every day. Great if they get on, not so much if they don’t. Colleagues should also know each other well enough to spot when something isn’t right. Empower them to have conversations, and to help each other out

Creating an employee health and wellbeing policy

According to the CIPD, just 9% of organisations currently have a standalone mental health policy for employees, and less than half provided mental health training for management and staff to support colleagues.

Just half of respondents in the survey felt their organisation was doing enough to support staff with mental ill health, or to actively promote good mental health.

It’s not enough to create a ‘mental health in the workplace’ policy on an ad hoc basis. You need to think seriously about prevention and response in relation to a variety of possible illnesses and scenarios.

And Meredith says it all starts with the C-suite: “We are very lucky to have founders and directors that believe in the importance of our wellbeing just as much as we do!

“We have a multifaceted health & wellbeing strategy that enables employees to access wellbeing initiatives and activities on several levels (physical, psychological, philanthropic, environmental and social). We recognise that one size does not fit all, and that wellbeing can mean a variety of things depending upon the individual.”

It’s also important to assess the impact your policies are having. Token initiatives that don’t really help anyone are a waste of time.

“Our strategy has measurable KPIs that are reported on frequently and constantly evolving, with the aim being that we embed wellbeing into our culture. We don’t believe that wellbeing support is just another box to tick to get people through our doors – it’s not something that is just slapped on top as an afterthought. We are passionate and informed about all of the initiatives that we run.”

Physical activities

The link between physical and mental health is widely recognised. If you can’t provide actual activities, then incentivise people with discounted gym memberships, or organise team sports at lunchtime. Anything to get out and get moving will have a positive impact.

Duvet days

A duvet day is a day off that any of your team can take on the day, with no questions asked. It counts as a day from their holiday allowance. You shouldn’t allow people to just take these whenever they want, however – a maximum of around three is sufficient.

Duvet days recognise that sometimes we’re just not feeling our best, and it would be better to take some time off rather than wasting time in the office.

It also mitigates the embarrassment that some people feel for requesting time off for mental health issues.

Flexible or agile working

Growing in popularity thanks to an increasingly digital and global business environment, flexible working and agile working allow employees to work how, when, and where they want (within limits).

It grants them the autonomy to work the hours that suit their lives, and work from spaces that promote their productivity and a positive mental attitude.

Autonomy is key to feelings of self-worth and positivity (see below).

Conduct an employee engagement survey

Simply asking your employees how they’re feeling is a great way to engage with your team. It will also help gauge:

  1. Whether they think you’re doing enough to support their wellbeing
  2. What initiatives they think would be useful for employee wellbeing.

These surveys could be as broad or as narrow as you wish, depending on what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Don’t conduct them so often that your employees feel like guinea pigs – once a quarter or every six months is probably enough.

Team activities

We are social creatures. And while a bit of water cooler banter is great for day to day connection, it’s good to get the whole team out of the office mindset and let their collective hair down.

Heading down the pub may be the only way British people know how to truly cut loose, but that doesn’t mean you have to base every team social around booze.

Try some other activities that encourage your employees to get to know each other. This will be hugely beneficial for their working relationships, and for their time in the office.

For example, escape rooms – where people have to work as a team to solve puzzles and escape from a locked room – are a great way to have fun and foster collaboration. Or how about a bit of healthy competition in the form of go karting?

Use technology

There’s a burgeoning tech space around mental health, with Startups like Unmind striving to make workplaces open up. The company offers clinically backed tools and training which, in the words of co-founder Ry Morgan, are geared to creating “healthier, happier, more human organisations.”

Alternatively, HR software and systems can play a vital role in ensuring mental health policy is implemented and understood by everyone in your organisation.

For very small businesses, it’s not realistic to devote a huge amount of time and resources to employee wellbeing. So if you could only do one thing, what would it be?

Meredith says:

“I think if there was only one area you were able to focus on, it should be promoting a healthy culture and attitude toward mental health. Ensure your employees have access to an Employee Assistance Programme that is widely promoted within your organisation.

“Encourage people to speak out about their mental health experiences and share their stories. Culturally, it will be one of the most effective things you can do, and it’s had a massive impact on our company.”

Mental health first aid in the workplace

We’ve talked about measures to mitigate or prevent mental ill health issues among your staff. But what happens if someone is already in a crisis?

Well, just as you should have a first aid kit for minor wounds, you should have a team of mental health first aiders on hand to help anyone suffering mental anguish.

We spoke to mental health first aider Hannah Whitfield to get the low down on helping people who are feeling low or down:

“To become mental health first aiders, a small group of people from across our company received training from a representative from MHFA England over a two day period. We learned more about the kind of mental health challenges that people face, and how we might spot a person in crisis.

“Our job is very much just to be a first port of call for those who are feeling low, and to direct them to the most appropriate source of help, if required. We make ourselves constantly available to listen to anyone who’d like to talk, look out for and approach anyone who might be struggling with their mental health, and are heavily involved in wider initiatives to improve the wellbeing of our staff.

“One of the most valuable lessons for me from the MHFA training was simply learning how to really listen to people, and encourage them to share more without offering your own opinion. I think it’s a hugely positive initiative, and I’ve found it an extremely rewarding thing to be part of.”

Financial wellbeing at work

Money may have been around for over a millennium, but in the grand history of human evolution, that’s nothing. Still ruled by our primordial brains (which struggle to plan beyond the next meal), the majority of us are pretty dire at managing our financial health.

And poor employee financial wellbeing can be a major driver of stress and anxiety while at work.

The inaugural Close Brothers’ Financial Wellbeing Index recently found that 94% of people in the UK suffer from money worries, with 77% saying these concerns affect them at work.

The survey of more than 5,000 employees and more than 1,000 employers scored UK workers across seven key areas of personal finance. The average score stood at a meagre 53.6%.

Financial stress can lead to poor performance. Therefore, as a business owner, it falls on you to tackle the issue.

You could offer:

  • Discount vouchers for lifestyle expenditure
  • Financial advice
  • Retirement seminars
  • Employee assistance programme
  • Workplace loans

Taking the edge off money worries will allow people to focus better on their work.

Autonomy in the workplace

It’s no wonder the trope of the disgruntled worker, no more than a cog in the machine, appears so much in dystopian fiction.

There’s not much worse for positive mental health than stripping someone of all their autonomy. People want to feel like they are in control of their lives.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be the CEO. But making sure everyone knows their voice will be heard, and giving them the responsibility to take ownership of tasks, will have a positive impact on morale.

This means trusting your employees to make decisions that they think are in the best interests of the company. If you’ve adequately communicated your vision and mission, and hired the right people, they should do. This doesn’t mean every decision will be right, but people can learn from mistakes.

It also encourages people to be innovative and bold. You want to empower your team to take some risks, and to challenge your authority when necessary.

How about a flat management structure?

A flat organisational structure (or beta structure) removes top down management and replaces it with a structure that gives full autonomy to self-organised teams.

These teams then make all the decisions that were once made by senior managers and team leaders.

Teams that have adopted a beta structure report that it can speed up decision making, improve employee satisfaction, and help maintain company culture during rapid growth.

Read more about introducing a flat organisational structure here.

The four-day work week

At first glance, it sounds ludicrous. Pay your employees the same for working one day fewer every week? That means fewer working hours for every pound you’re spending.

But, actually, it could be the shot in the arm your organisation needs. Businesses that have introduced the four-day work week have seen lower stress, improved productivity, and no change in output.

We spoke to Rich Leigh, founder of Radioactive PR – a company that introduced a four day working week in 2018 – to find out why he did it, and what happened next…

What made you decide to move to a four-day work week?

“Technology was supposed to give us a better work-life balance. If anything, it’s made it worse. In a broader context, I think that getting rewarded for being good at your job has been replaced by a culture that celebrates being wedded to your job, above all else. Presenteeism is good for nothing and nobody.

“I, as an employer, just went along with it, because a five-day work week is the norm. I think we can, at this size, make a change that stays with us as we grow. Releases never go out on Fridays, after all, and we can be ‘on’ in the same way we are for clients at the weekend – for example, get everything done that is on the weekly grid and client timelines in the days we ARE in, and if anything crops up and can’t wait, we’re on it.”

What was the response from employees?

“Well, after sending the initial email – which detailed what was happening, why, how the trial would be measured, and what it would mean if permanently implemented from a holiday pay perspective – and asking everybody to join me in our meeting room, I asked if anybody had questions. I didn’t expect the first question to be: ‘is this a joke!?’!

“The response has been unanimously positive – which sounds obvious – but I was conscious of the response, and sought to ensure the team knew this wasn’t about forcing five days into four.”

What impact have you seen as a result of the introduction of a four-day work week?

“We’re nearly a year into having implemented the change.

“Turnover has roughly doubled in the time – which is on track with our growth before the change – and our net (and gross) margin has increased, even. Sick days have reduced by around 50%, and the team seem happier than ever. I’ve found a definite difference in terms of the quantity and quality of CVs coming in when we recruit now, making employing much easier, too.

“We haven’t won any new clients as a result of the change, which is worth highlighting, because I feel that our continued agency growth is in spite of the 4 day, not because of it – a positive for any companies considering it, but worried it’s not ‘newsworthy’ anymore. I’d make the same choice again though, even with none of the broader interest, because the benefits have been so positive.”

Is it right for everyone? Or only suited to certain businesses?

“I’d say it’s not for everyone. We’re in a service industry, based outside of the de facto capital of the PR industry. But by charging what our peers charge, and rightfully so, our margins are many times higher than the industry average.

“Knowing this, I was able to make a safer bet on it working, feeling like I would be happy even with a small margin hit – which hasn’t yet happened, but I’m still expecting it! It comes down to the fact that Fridays in PR are typically quieter days, and helped hugely by technology that has done away with hours of reporting. I appreciate not everybody is in this position, but for anybody considering it, I think a good and well-thought out trial period is the way forward.”

…Or how about Wednesday afternoon off?

If you don’t think the four-day work week is right for your business, there are a growing number of advocates for this alternative…

New research from behaviour change consultancy Kin&Co has found that Wednesday is the least productive day of the week. Therefore, it’s calling for businesses to trial a ‘Wednesday Off-ternoon’

And Kin&Co practises what it preaches.

It’s been trialling the ‘Off-ternoon’ for two years, with the office closing at 1.30pm on Wednesday every week.

In this time it’s achieved over 50% year-on-year growth, while employees have used the free afternoons to pursue everything from volunteering, blogging, and therapy to training for marathons. A recent staff survey found that 74% of the organisation scored 10/10 on how productive they felt after the mid-week rest break.


We’ve covered some radical changes you can make to your workplace to ensure you have happy and productive employees.

But you don’t have to introduce such seismic changes to see the difference. Simply fostering a supportive environment, where people feel comfortable opening up about any issues they may have, is one of the best things you can do.

We’ll leave the last word to Meredith, who urges organisations to look beyond the myth that  “wellbeing is a ‘fluffy’ thing that is about colouring in or ‘airy-fairy’ activities”.

The fact that humans no longer regularly engage in activities to enhance and enable our wellbeing has led to the mental health crisis that we see today, and it impacts everybody on every level.

“The more we engage in these activities again, and connect with ourselves and the world around us, the more we break down the stigma associated with caring for our mental health, and in turn influence future generations’ outlook on mental health in a really positive way.
We are beginning to see some changes for the better, such as meditation being taught in some schools, but we still have a lot more work to do!”

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