Smaller employers should be reassured that there are many simple actions they can take to support their staff, which don’t have to be overly bureaucratic, or costly – it’s often simply about being aware and creating a supportive environment.  SMEs often have better relationships with their staff than their larger counterparts and you may already be taking actions that contribute to their wellbeing without necessarily realizing it.

Thinking about your business within the context of its impact on your employees’ mental health will help you to recognise what you are already doing well and to identify any further actions that you can take to improve wellbeing.

Whilst each organisation is different and will need to find an approach that is right for them, here are some suggestions for the kinds of practical steps that smaller employers can take to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace:

Demonstrate commitment from the top
Ultimately, only leadership from the top will create a culture where employees feel their employer genuinely cares about their mental health. Small employers must, therefore, show a clear commitment towards taking actions to support staff suffering from mental health conditions and to provide a working environment that promotes mental wellbeing.  Signing the Time to Change Employer Pledge is one way to demonstrate this commitment.  The aim is to normalise the conversation about mental health in the workplace and it’s straightforward for employers of all sizes to get involved.  There’s no test, or lengthy application process, employers are simply asked to develop a pledge action plan with details of activities they will undertake to support mental health in the workplace. 

Promote awareness and understanding of mental health issues
A OnePoll survey reveals that, on average, 42% of employees feel comfortable discussing prevalent physical conditions, compared to just 14% who feel they can talk about common mental health issues.  Therefore, promoting awareness about mental health issues, through training and awareness programs can help to reduce the stigma and replace common myths with facts. In particular, training for line managers will increase their understanding of mental health conditions and help them to spot the early warning signs, as well as giving them the skills and confidence to have effective conversations with employees experiencing mental health issues. 

Employers should also have an awareness of the external mental health support services that are available locally, so that, if necessary, they can sign-post their employees to an appropriate source of help.  It may also be worth considering arranging for one or more staff members to be trained as Mental Health First Aiders to support your managers and act as another point of contact for staff.  For more information on implementing Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace, contact us here.

Develop & Support Line Managers
Line Managers sometimes shy away from the subject of mental health with employees, for fear of making matters worse or provoking legal consequences. However, they are best placed to spot the early warning signs if someone is struggling to cope and should be the first port of call if an employee wants to discuss a mental health condition.  Good line management can help manage and prevent workplace stress and research highlights that the core management behaviours needed by line managers to achieve this (CIPD 2017) are:

  • being open, fair and consistent
  • handling conflicts and problems
  • providing knowledge, clarity and guidance
  • building and sustaining relationships
  • supporting development.

Good interpersonal skills, therefore, are vital and should be an important selection criterion in the recruitment and promotion of line managers. They need to be well informed about mental health issues, able to develop supportive relationships with members of their team and to effectively deal with conflict.  They should be having regular conversations with all members of their team, so that there are opportunities for individuals to raise any personal issues or concerns. 

Given their role in promoting employee mental health, managers can be highly valuable assets.  However, small business owners can make the mistake of overworking their managers, or themselves. Being overworked can lead to a wide range of stress-related issues, which may cause irritability and poor decision-making.  Small business leaders should, therefore, look after their own and their managers’ mental health by ensuring that workloads are manageable, being alert to the signs of stress or burn-out and ensuring that appropriate support is available, if required.

Ensure confidentiality
People can understandably be anxious about disclosing mental health conditions, so employers should create clear policies about who is made aware of such disclosures; as a rule, it should involve as few people as possible.  Employers should reassure individuals that any private information they disclose will not be leaked to their colleagues. It may, however, be helpful to explore with them any information that they would like shared with team colleagues, as some people may find this supportive.

Consider the work environment
It’s important to identify what areas of the workplace might be a cause of mental ill health for employees.  Factors such as noise, temperature and light levels can all have an impact on wellbeing, so a good starting point is to seek your employees’ views on what needs improving and to ask for their ideas on how improvements can be made.  For example, in open plan offices, room dividers may be beneficial to reduce noise levels and prevent distractions.

Discourage harmful workplace practices
Work practices, such as working long hours and presenteeism, are not sustainable ways of operating and will take their toll on individuals and business productivity.  Employers should, therefore, make sure that employees use their full annual holiday entitlements and take their contractual breaks, as well as encouraging them to have their lunch away from their desks. 

Facilitate flexibility
It’s also important that there’s recognition of the fact that everyone has multiple roles- as employees, parents, partners, carers etc. which can lead to role conflict or overload. The offer of greater workplace flexibility enables employees to strike a balance and minimize work-life conflict by allowing them to accomplish the tasks necessary in their daily lives.  Therefore, it’s really important that employers look at ways in which they can offer their employees the flexibility they need.  This may include, for example, providing opportunities for staff to work from home, allowing flexible start and leaving times, or compressed hours.

Manage and monitor workloads
Having a large workload is often cited by employees as being the biggest workplace stressor (i.e., having too much to do and not enough time to do it). It’s not only the amount of work that makes a difference but also the extent to which employees have the resources (time, equipment, support) to do the work well. A workplace where tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished successfully within the time available will promote mental wellbeing and will, ultimately, have a positive impact on productivity.

Ensure good job design
In addition to having manageable workloads, employees benefit from feeling that they have some measure of control over their work. Good job design therefore requires organising tasks, systems and structures so that people have some level of autonomy and control at work. This involves clarifying roles and responsibilities, improving supervision and workplace relationships and ensuring variety.

When considering job design, employers should take the following into account:

Demand and control – Jobs with high demand but low control are considered ‘high-strain’ jobs and bear the greatest risk of illness and reduced wellbeing. There is also evidence of a link between ‘high-strain’ jobs and mental health disorders. People who do not experience stimulation or satisfaction are at risk of ill health. 

Resources and support – Providing employees with the appropriate resources to perform their work enables them to more actively engage with their tasks. Having the right kind of support in the workplace reduces the adverse impact of ‘high-strain’ jobs on an employee’s wellbeing. For example a culture where team members help each other and providing opportunities for fun and humour is one way of creating a positive culture.

Job characteristics and engagement – Jobs that allow for skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy and feedback are associated with higher levels of psychological wellbeing. Regular communication and feedback to employees on how their job impacts others and the wider business helps people feel valued and connected to their work because they can relate to, and are committed to, the overall success and mission of their company.

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People Based Solutions is an HR and Workplace Health & Safety support company, specialising in supporting small and medium sized businesses. If you would like to know more about how we can help you with the issues covered in this blog, or with any other HR or Health & Safety matters, call us on 01925 425 857, send an e-mail to or click here to visit our website.

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