5 min read

How to prioritise mental health year-round

Anisa Aksar

Mental health isn’t just a concern on National Sickie Day or Time to Talk Day. So why aren’t we taking the conversation further?

Supporting your people’s mental health goes beyond offering bagels and a hotline.

This may seem contradictory coming from us. After all, I recently posted a picture of our Blue Monday bagel breakfast that trended on LinkedIn. Yes, we did seize the opportunity for free food and a lie in – I mean, who wouldn’t? – but this won't actually resolve or ease mental health issues. Hear me out…

As a society, we tend to consider mental health on specific occasions: so far this year, we’ve observed Blue Monday in January and both National Sickie Day and Time to Talk Day in February. These days seem to come and go, but the issues they address never really change.

Consider National Sickie Day, for example. This unofficial day is assigned to the first Monday in February, which is commonly regarded as the day in which most people call in sick to work.

Missing work isn’t the problem here; it’s the fact that people feel the need to hide their mental health issues

Burnout, stress and mental health concerns play a large part in these decisions – a recent survey suggested that 8.6 million people took a sick day last year because their jobs were “too painful,” according to the BBC.

Missing work isn’t the problem here; it’s the fact that people feel the need to hide their mental health issues. Instead of opening up about these concerns, people often cite physical ailments such as coughs, flu or stomach problems.

So how can companies avoid these superficial measures and move to the forefront of mental health support? The first step involves starting an open dialogue about the issue, so here are three ways you do just that.

Lead from the top

Isn’t it funny how we can feel uncomfortable leaving work before our bosses? Like it or not, managers set the tone in many situations. If you see your supervisor leave on time each day, you’ll be more likely to do the same. Similarly, when senior-level staff prioritise managers’ mental health, those managers will then pass on the same consideration to their staff members.

The same principle applies to mental health support. Obviously, not every employee will feel comfortable sharing their personal histories. Those that do, however, will help start a shift in conversation. At worst, it could provide food for thought; at best, though, it could empower others.

Good things happen when management takes an active interest in employees’ mental health

Of course, personal anecdotes can only go so far. HR and people management departments also need to empower managers to make decisions based on human need rather than policy compliance. Developing your people skills – delivering feedback, enhancing communication – can go a long way in this regard.

Supporting people managers, peers and colleagues to recognise fatigue, disengagement, behavioural changes or decreased productivity could help them address mental health issues and burnout. This isn’t revolutionary advice, but it could help managers do more to support their staff.

Consider employee assistance

Good things happen when management takes an active interest in employees’ mental health.

But the fact remains: managers aren’t counsellors. Mental health is a sensitive thing, and people are often uncomfortable discussing it at work. Would you feel calm and collected if you had to share your biggest problems with your line manager? Sometimes it’s easier to speak with a stranger who you won’t encounter at work.

At a certain point, employees may need to speak to a mental health professional. That doesn’t mean their employers can’t continue to provide support, though.

Today, many companies offer employee assistance programmes (EAPs), which usually take the form of confidential counselling helplines. No matter the time or place, users can call care workers trained to address issues ranging from work-related stress to personal anxiety.

...When people talk about their mental health, it encourages others to do the same

EAPs are crucial tools in times of crisis. In addition to providing new techniques to help callers manage mental health issues, counsellors can book follow-up appointments so employees can continue to receive the support they need.

That said, EAPs are only one step in the mental health journey. They aren’t a long-term solution and should be supplemented with some form of therapy. Employers can also assist in this stage of treatment; at 11:FS, we offer private medical coverage for cognitive behavioural therapy, for example.

Get people talking

At this point, I should note that I’m not a mental health professional. I haven’t scoured academic journals, seeking every shred of research on the topic. Really, I’m speaking from my personal experience in HR.

And one thing I can tell you is that I’ve felt much more support for my mental health after talking to peers and managers about it. People have even come up to me regularly to discuss their mental health.

Basically, when people talk about their mental health, it encourages others to do the same. All it takes is one person to open the conversation.

There’s no single right answer, initiative or strategy that will enable you to support positive mental wellbeing year-round

Here’s an example: once we raised the issue of mental health at 11:FS, we began to make little changes that in turn had a major impact.

The main result was a reboot for our one-on-one meetings. We wanted to get the most out of these sessions, but also encouraged everyone to consider others’ states of mind. When managers book catch-up meetings, for example, they include context so staff members don’t build up the worst case scenario in their heads.

It’s a small step, but it’s had a tangible impact on our team’s daily lives. And it all came about because we fostered open discussion about mental health.

There’s no single right answer, initiative or strategy that will enable you to support positive mental wellbeing year-round.

But if you make it a priority from the top down, set up relevant programmes and listen to what your people are saying, you’ll be well on your way to creating a healthier and happier place for your employees.

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