Sally Orton: Blue Monday 2020 - Protecting the mental health of employees



To mark Blue Monday 2020, Sally Orton shares her wealth of experience in helping construction businesses to identify and effectively manage poor mental health in the workplace.

Sally Orton

According to the Mental Health Foundation, as many as 3 in 10 employees will experience a mental health problem in any one year, with around 1 in 6 people showing signs of anxiety and depression each week in the workplace.

With next today dubbed ‘Blue Monday’ - the most depressing day of the year - businesses across the UK are being encouraged to stop and think about mental health but, as highlighted above, it is an issue which affects people throughout the year.

The UK construction industry, in particular, throws up some deeply concerning statistics around the poor mental health of its employees, with male site workers being three times more likely to commit suicide than the average UK employee. Therefore, businesses should strive towards having staff wellbeing at the forefront of their core practices to ensure a healthy work culture is created.

Although the focus on promoting mental health in the workplace has considerably improved over recent years, as more people begin to open up and share their problems thanks, in part, to the array of positive initiatives now available, there is still a long way to go. Regardless of the job, all employers should manage and offer the right support to those who are suffering.

In the workplace, it can be difficult to identify if and when employees may be experiencing poor mental health, as, unfortunately, many sufferers hide their symptoms due the stigma surrounding poor mental health at work. Identifying the signs becomes even more difficult for those who work offsite or remotely and men working in such environments are often perceived to be ‘thick skinned’ and lacking emotion, which is terribly misconstrued.

One of the most obvious signs an employee has a mental health problem is reoccurring absences from work. This is especially evident if consistent patterns of absences are beginning to develop with that individual. However, despite absenteeism, it’s very rare for an employee to call in sick and openly cite depression or anxiety as the reason for it.

Regular short-term absences that aren’t accompanied by a doctor’s note for a specific illness may indicate an underlying mental health condition and could be an indication that employers need to mindful that poor mental health could be a possible cause.

Reduced productivity and lack of motivation are both clear indicators to an employer that there may be underlying issues with a staff member that may require close monitoring.

In addition, just because an employee has turned up to work does not mean that they aren’t ill and working hard to cover up their private issues. Trying to continue as normal will often exacerbate their problems as low productivity may be viewed as a lack of ability by colleagues unaware of the employee’s mental health state being the underlying issue, thereby adding to their workload pressures. The knock-on effect of this could see the employee begin to isolate themselves or become short-tempered, so any change in behaviour is another flag for concern.

Once an employer has picked up on these signs, or if an employee asks for help, the next step is to offer the required and necessary support needed to effectively and sensitively manage the issue. This could include considering flexible working hours or arranging a meeting with the company’s HR department or consultancy, to help work out the best way to help the staff member move forward.

Even with these measures in place, many of those suffering will hide the symptoms and avoid seeking help directly, so having a number of initiatives in place to encourage employees to seek help is paramount.

At Plastic Surgeon, employee-focused initiatives are at the heart of our company culture to ensure all staff are aware of the various methods of help available to them, both during and outside working hours.

Such initiatives include the Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), a free 24/7 phone service which enables employees to share any concerns over the state of their mental health. Staff can download the App and login to access all kinds of support and advice, including short wellbeing webinars on topics such as resilience.

The service is confidential and, if regular calls are made, patterns can be identified to pinpoint recurring issues which, in turn, leads to appropriate support being offered moving forward.

The NHS waiting list for mental health counselling is 26 weeks, but with the EAP an employee can talk to someone within a day or two. A service like this can, quite literally, save lives, as those in the most vulnerable state can receive help almost immediately after seeking it.

Other initiatives that Plastic Surgeon have successfully implemented are an in-house Mental Health First Aid Champion Scheme, where nominated staff are championed as the first point of call for the nationwide team of fine finishers. Regular events such as fundraising, tea and talk sessions, and monthly company newsletters, both in physical form and via social media, also greatly increase the chances of someone suffering with poor mental health to come forward, especially if the right culture is created to foster a confidential environment to do so.

Team building opportunities including anything from skydives to walks, also encourage everyone to get involved, resulting in a team ethos where employees are working together to support each other.

Overall, by being more aware of mental health in general, employers – both in construction and other industries – can efficiently spot the signs of poor mental health in the workplace, thereby avoiding the problem escalating, but effectively manage those who are suffering and in need of support. By implementing initiatives that create a thriving culture of openness and camaraderie between employees, an environment focusing on the protection and nurturing of mental health will be fostered.

  • Sally Orton is HR manager at surface repair specialist Plastic Surgeon


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