Researcher, Mental Health Ireland
Lunchtime yoga, wellbeing apps, free food — keep them. But to really improve workplace mental health, make small changes to the structure and culture.
Organisations want to support employees’ mental health. Most organisations are already trying. However, the latest research suggests we’re putting our efforts into the wrong place.
Well-meaning ‘bad prescriptions’ for mental health
A 2023 study from Oxford University’s Wellbeing Research Centre says that the danger is in treating employee wellbeing as though it is isolated from working conditions. These ‘bad prescriptions’ seek to change the individual, not the organisation.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t keep our lunchtime yoga and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). They show employees we value them, but they’re firefighting issues rather than creating a healthy workplace that prevents issues from arising in the first place.
Employees are the most reliable source
of information on workplace culture.
Good workplace and bad workplace
What does a healthy workplace look like? Employees have identified job satisfaction, a positive emotional experience and finding work purposeful, worthwhile and meaningful as essential. They want to be clear on their responsibilities, have some flexibility, be trained right for the demands of the role, be consulted on the decisions that affect them, have some autonomy in their day-to-day work and be treated fairly.
In terms of what makes a workplace ‘unhealthy,’ bullying and the tolerance of bullying are chronically destructive. Unrealistic time pressures, micro-management, a lack of consistency in how policies are applied and people being denied credit where it is due all come up as negatively impacting the workplace.
Start with the employees themselves
Employees are the most reliable source of information on workplace culture. They can tell you immediately what structures are the most challenging. They can help you design solutions to increase the wellbeing of the organisation. A workplace where sharing ideas is the norm helps employees feel valued — and it’s free.
Commit to it by planning for it
Workplace policies are commitments to staff. Mental Health Ireland recommends creating a workplace mental health policy. For your staff — with your staff. In their recently launched framework, ‘Wellness Works,’ Mental Health Ireland guides organisations through this process step by step.
Worthwhile change doesn’t necessarily cost a huge amount financially. It does require an investment by management and leadership in working with employees to make changes that matter. The ultimate payoff from this investment is a healthier workforce, staff retention, a decrease in absenteeism due to mental health challenges, lower risk to the organisation’s reputation and a culture that you are proud to have contributed to creating.