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Role of L&D in mental health and wellbeing at work

Research has found that preventative mental health support such as awareness-raising and line manager training yields a much higher return on investment than reactive support like therapy.  It’s no surprise then that Learning and Development (L&D) professionals are reportedly the new “Chief Mental Health Officers”.

Undoubtedly COVID-19 has accelerated progress in workplace mental health but much of it is still tactical. Now more than ever there’s an opportunity for L&D to make a sustainable difference in employee wellbeing. In this blog, we take a look at what you can do to make an impact on mental health and wellbeing in your organisation.

A strategic approach

As a result of COVID-19 L&D has become more central, strategic, and cross-functional. However, just half of organisations take a strategic approach to employee wellbeing.

Good mental health is integral to the entire organisation. Just training some mental first aiders is like applying a sticking plaster. Janice Benning, BiteSize Learning, Wellbeing Lead says, “More so than ever organisational development and HR leaders need to challenge leadership to embed wellbeing into the corporate agenda. Starting with the c-suite, it needs to feed down and upwards. Ultimately, it’s senior-level support that will make it work. ”

Management capability supports employee mental health 

According to Paul Hodder, BiteSize Learning Director “Employees can thrive when they are supported by good, confident managers. To address mental health and wellbeing companies need to enhance their management capability – being clear on expected behaviours and providing appropriate development. Leadership development frameworks should include emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion, mental health and wellbeing as a matter of course.”

The causes of mental ill-health 

Just to recap on the causes of mental ill-health: there’s often a combination of factors including a genetic predisposition, societal issues that disadvantage groups of people (socially and economically), personal circumstances such as physical health, trauma experienced in the armed services, for example, or financial stress. Consumer confidence has hit a record 48-year low recently with people feeling more pessimistic about the economy than during the global banking crisis, Covid or Brexit. Critically, lifestyle factors like work and diet play a big role (but usually not in isolation). There are several areas where employers can make a difference.

Mental health problems are common – an estimated 1 in 6 adults have experienced one, such as depression or anxiety, in the past week. Most people experience changes in their mental health and wellbeing over time, often in response to a period of stress or life events – such as divorce or the death of a loved one.

The cost of poor mental health

Poor mental health poses a significant cost to the individual and to businesses and society as a whole. This is evidenced at work by rising absenteeism, with nearly 18 million workdays lost in 2019/20, and working when ill (presenteeism) a growing cause of lost productivity.

Employers rely on healthy and productive employees to be successful. But currently, poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year.

Promoting positive wellbeing and mental health at work is the right thing to do – both ethically and financially. Organisations that take a strategic, top-down, and bottom-up approach including steps to support, develop and motivate employees will see a positive return on investment.

The effects of COVID-19

COVID-19 has triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. It has also changed the landscape of work. Creating new demands, uncertainty, blurred work-life boundaries, and accelerating ‘always on’ working. Some employees have been underemployed while others have seen their workloads increase.  Homeworkers have missed out on the benefits of face-to-face time to build and nurture their workplace relationships. Some of these challenges have exposed weaknesses in managerial skills and style – a common cause of stress at work.

According to Janice Benning “This is a marathon, not a sprint. The key drivers of physical and mental wellbeing don’t change much. Those organisations who’ve taken a rounded and consistent approach and have invested in their people are better positioned to ride out turbulent times and the effects of an event like COVID.”

Protective factors for mental health   

Due to multiple components, there’s no one approach to employee wellbeing.  The range of protective factors which safeguard mental health and in turn wellbeing cannot be addressed by employee benefits and mental health awareness training alone. These include:

  • feeling appreciated;
  • being paid fairly;
  • a manageable workload;
  • supportive manager;
  • feeling included and respected;
  • time and location flexibility;
  • physical workplace environment;
  • and ability to learn.

Research studies have found that measures to alleviate job stress at multiple levels – both individually (dealing with problems at source and skills) and organisationally (policy & procedure) are more effective than single measures.

Measures like flexible working can pay for themselves in terms of reduced absence and staff turnover.  Hybrid working policies like PwC’s condensed summer working hours are having a big impact on general wellbeing.

There is a strong link between poor mental health and discrimination. People who experience prejudice and bias, for example, those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual (LGBT+) or black community are at much greater risk. Championing an inclusive culture backed by policies and people management practices that promote understanding, fairness, and respect for difference will help reduce stigma and promote wellbeing.

Cross-functional working 

L&D and HR professionals need to co-author a strategic plan. They should consider performance indicators including staff turnover, absence, grievance, training needs and feedback, 360 feedback, employment assistance programmes (EPA) usage, and critically what employees tell them through surveys and focus groups.

Responsibility for wellbeing varies between organisations and often depends on the size of the company. L&D and HR’s perimeter of responsibility has increased over recent years taking on areas like wellbeing and engagement alongside traditional tasks, but resources have not always kept pace and these functions do not always have a voice at the table.

Where a team or individual role has a wellbeing focus, they need to be empowered to influence and work cross organisationally. EPAs need to be well publicised, free, and confidential, as they are often underused, and links need to be drawn to HR policies and skills and awareness development.

Janice Benning reflects “ Those that are getting this to work take a global approach and they’re thinking outside the box and adapting quickly – for example to the cost-of-living crisis or previously to the challenges of homeschooling. They’re doing their research to understand the current problems their employees face, providing a range of interventions and they test things to see what works. We work with one client who provides healthy snacks, gym membership, flexible working, and voluntary work opportunities, within this context, mental health awareness training works well.”

These are not issues that will be solved overnight. Ongoing dialogue with employees and monitoring are needed to continue to make progress.

 L&D interventions to support mental health

According to research by Deloitte, the return on investment for proactive mental health support like line manager workshops is £5 for each £1 spent. Organisation‑wide, preventative activities like awareness-raising and training delivered universally or for small groups, achieve more impact than reactive, individual‑focused activities such as counseling. L&D plays a central role in delivering education and culture change, here are some of the ways that they can do this:

  • Mental health skills and awareness training

Prevention is better than cure so it is useful for all employees to have good resilience skills and knowledge about healthy habits such as eating well, sleeping, and exercising as well as quick wins to change habits in the real world. They also need to have mental health awareness education to understand what good mental health looks like and what happens when our mental health is less than great.

Training can provide a safe and supportive environment for people to share their own experiences of mental ill-health and develop skills and strategies for positive mental health. The participant has the responsibility to follow up on the training, tools, and techniques and have access to resources like course notes, videos, etc to help them do so.

Education and awareness are important but there is no point in encouraging employees to be open with their line manager if the manager is not able to respond. CIPD research has found that less than two-fifths of HR respondents agree that managers are confident to have sensitive discussions and signpost people to expert sources of help when needed.

Managers have a critical role in picking up the signs of mental ill-health – early intervention and keeping employees well is much more cost-effective than dealing with long-term problems that can arise. Yet even fewer HR respondents (29%) believe managers in their organisations are confident and competent to spot the early warning signs of mental ill-health. And just over two-fifths (44%) of organisations are training managers to support staff with mental ill-health.

Mental health training can use real-life case studies to explore the reality of managing mental ill-health in the workplace and enable managers to support themselves and their team members – translating theory into practice. Participants will recognise that they have one role when reports are happy and well which changes should a team member begin to struggle – they may need to call in external support from HR and or Occupational Health (if it exists). If a team member is unwell their role changes again as it is their job to get them back into the workplace effectively (with appropriate support from HR).

  • Management and interpersonal skills  

Research suggests that your manager’s management style has a huge bearing on your mental health at work. Managers need to lead by example, if they’re working themselves into the ground and getting angry, everyone’s wellbeing will suffer. Training managers to manage effectively and know how to build positive relationships with their reports is critical. They need interpersonal skills, for example, in communication, emotional intelligence, and inclusive management which influence and smooth workplace relationships.

According to Paul Hodder “While hybrid working has wellbeing benefits there are disbenefits that need addressing. Protective factors such as opportunities for growth, recognition, communication, feeling part of a team and supportive workplace relationships are all interrupted when people work remotely. So Leaders need to be more proactive and need to know how to manage hybrid employees and create an environment which supports wellbeing.”

New managers particularly need support to develop their people management skills, balance competing priorities and remain resilient. For employees generally, continued professional development and upskilling help people to succeed in their roles and reassures them about their future employability, critical when people are under financial pressure – which can help avoid stress and burnout.

  • Psychological safety

Leaders need to be able to show vulnerability and create psychological safety  so that employees can talk openly with their line managers. Employees won’t feel able to disclose that they are struggling if they feel it will be used against them in the future.

Examples of leaders talking openly about their mental health include the government’s ex-Vaccine Chief Dame Kate Bingham and Monzo’s co-founder and ex-CEO Tom Blomfield. Janice Benning explains that “When a senior member of staff opens up about their personal experience of mental ill-health it tends to open up the conversation. It shows that someone can experience mental ill-health and still be in a senior management role, this tends to lead to others feeling that they can discuss their personal experiences.”

Benchmark your wellbeing approach   

Solutions vary depending on the industry, type of organisation, and issues they are dealing with. The charity Mind publishes an independent benchmark on what the business community is doing well. Chief Executive Paul Falmer points to BT, Lloyds Bank, Deloitte, and Unilever as examples of good practice.

Leek United Building Society’s response to employee feedback has put financial well-being centre stage, including interest-free loans for emergencies and in-house and external support, line manager training, and executive promotion.

Another great case study is Student Beans which won recognition for excellence and outstanding engagement at the Great British Workplace Wellbeing Awards 2022. They’ve put in place a range of wellbeing initiatives including Mental Health First Aiders, Flexi-Fridays, Endometriosis support, Pregnancy Loss support, Management training on Wellness Action Plans, Wellness allowance, and enhanced parental schemes.

 A last thought about talent

The challenges to attracting and retaining talent in 2022 are considerable. Our wellbeing and mental health policies are now a crucial part of how we engage, employ and retain talent. Companies like PwC which has introduced a progressive hybrid working policy and KPMG are making changes to improve wellbeing and retain staff.

When it comes to younger people – whose subjective wellbeing was negatively impacted by the pandemic almost more than any other age group, they are more informed about health and wellbeing issues and expect more from their employers. Research has found that, of those entering the financial, legal, and professional services industries, more than half (52%) considered the prospective employer’s approach to the mental health of its employees to be “important to them”, while a further third (34%) considered it “extremely important”.

And employees generally are evaluating how their employers treat people. According to talent management expert Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic it’s often harder for organisations to be kind than smart “..the premium and competitive advantage in the war for talent will increasingly shift towards kindness, empathy, and consideration..”

Get in touch

BiteSize Learning has a track record of outstanding feedback for our mental health and wellbeing training.  If you’d like to have a chat about our courses please message Abby at [email protected]

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