Does mental health in the workplace affect employee engagement?

Monique Ellis our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 16/05/2018

A common mistake made by employers is believing that a great employee engagement strategy will ultimately lead to good levels of employee mental health at work. The only way this would be true is if their engagement strategy had specific systems in place to address employee mental health, an issue of growing importance in the modern workplace. With stress and anxiety levels rising, employers won’t know how to improve employee engagement if they fail to recognise the key role mental health plays in the mix.  

While many employers have accepted that employee engagement is key to the success of their business and are taking action, most are unaware of the secret obstacle in their path: employee mental health. There is overwhelming evidence to show that factors like insufficient sleep, difficult working environments and stress/anxiety over workload are affecting employees’ ability to feel truly connected to their organisation’s goals and values - no matter how high their salary or generous their benefits package.

Not paying attention to employee mental health and wellbeing, which can significantly impact an employee’s quality of life, can be detrimental to an organisation’s engagement levels. In fact, a 2017 study on work-related mental health problems suggested that 60% of employees say that they’d feel more motivated and more likely to recommend their company if their employer supported mental health and wellbeing. Proclinical’s annual employee engagement report always highlights the importance of advocacy in a company’s ability to attract and retain staff.

This relationship between employee mental health and engagement, motivation and productivity cannot be overlooked, so companies must incorporate appropriate systems and strategies to support their employees both mentally and physically. Here’s a few ways to improve mental health in the workplace:

Managerial approach

It’s important to get all levels of management on board to combat mental health in the workplace. Proclinical’s engagement report indicates that an employees’ relationship with their line manager can affect their engagement levels, but it can also really affect their mental health, too.

For line managers directly responsible for managing the productivity and performance of a team, it’s not uncommon for them focus all their energy on organising their team, ensuring they meet deadlines and hit targets. However, this often means the human side of things fades into the background. Stress and anxiety over unrealistic deadlines and unmanageable workloads are all too common problems in the workplace, as is lack of sleep and having a bad work/life balance. As mentally happy employees are ultimately more productive, it’s certainly worth line managers adapting their management style to reduce these mental health triggers.

Studies have shown that line managers who are supportive and approachable are more likely to inspire greater commitment and engagement from their employees as they feel valued and looked after. While employees may not come to their line managers directly to discuss their struggle with stress, anxiety and depression, line managers can certainly help by:

  • Enforcing reasonable working hours to avoid burn out
  • Understanding that employees may react differently to stress, and have different stress triggers
  • Encouraging employees to take their full lunch hour and other breaks when needed
  • Making it possible for employees to take their annual leave allowance
  • Having regular, informal catch-ups with individual employees so they feel listened to and able to resolve issues before they escalate into stressful situations
  • Ensuring employees are comfortable asking for help
  • Considering flexible working hours or work-from-home days
  • Making employees understand that taking a ‘mental sick day’ is as important for their health as a physical one

Having good relationships with senior management is also useful in ensuring good mental health at work. It can help foster trust, inspiring confidence in the direction the organisation is moving. In terms of combatting mental health problems at work, getting senior management on board will bring a real sense of authenticity to the systems being put in place. Senior management are responsible for ensuring managers are trained in mental health and stress management and advising/guiding them on how to approach these issues in line with the company’s values.

Mental health awareness at work

While many companies may already have systems in place to help with mental health in the workplace, employees are not always aware of the support available to them, nor are they sure who to approach or how their confidences will be received and dealt with.

Targeting individuals who you suspect may be struggling with mental health issues may embarrass or alienate them. A softer, more effective approach would be to generally raise awareness of the company’s commitment to mental health around the office. This could be through an internal marketing campaign, putting together leaflets and brochures, creating a video or putting posters up in communal areas. Other effective ways to support employee mental health is to have an employee assistance programme (EAP), or to hold regular HR ‘open doors’ where staff can discuss issues they’re not comfortable addressing with management.

Whatever systems are used, they must be easily accessible to employees and entirely confidential. Communications should be carefully worded, avoiding any generalisations or patronising language. Companies must aim to create a safe space in which employees understand what they can discuss with their managers and/or HR, how this information will be protected and what support they can expect going forward. Above all, employees should be made to feel that mental health is a legitimate concern in the workplace and will be taken seriously, as so often stigma surrounding mental health leads people to believe that it is a sign of weakness or failure.

Improving communication

Organisations should encourage employees of all levels to communicate better with their colleagues as this can help improve mental health at work. Stepping away from ‘key board warrior’ mode and encouraging more face-to-face, physical communication will foster a more friendly, open working relationship with fellow colleagues. This policy helps to avoid passive aggressive emails, misconstrued information and mixed messages, which can result in or exacerbate stress and anxiety.

In terms of creating a connection between employee and employee, which we’ve seen is vital to productivity and engagement, companies can do this by touching base regularly with their workforce. Again, this comes down to good communication. Regular employee engagement surveys, suggestion boxes and HR ‘open doors’ are great examples. Companies who keep an open dialogue going with all levels of staff are the most in-touch with the wants and needs of their workforce. This will reflect in the way they support their mental health and wellbeing.

It appears that many of the factors commonly attributed to employee engagement are ultimately rooted in employee mental health and wellbeing. For example, employees want to the chance to innovate because this keeps them feeling mentally challenged; employees want to be compensated fairly because this makes them feel that their skills are valued and their hard work recognised. Therefore, companies should reference mental health in every single aspect of their employee engagement strategy to ensure a happy, engaged and productive workforce.