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Small actions that can make all the difference this Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental Health,
Mental Health Awareness Week,
The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023,

Many employers might be looking at ways to improve their employees’ mental health and wellbeing for Mental Health Awareness Week this week (13-19 May).

For those with responsibility for the mental health and wellbeing of employees, it might be tempting to view employee mental health as something that can be definitively improved or ‘fixed’. Especially when the ‘fix’ is a tried-and-tested intervention many workplaces use, like health and wellbeing initiatives, promotion of exercise, social events, and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs).

But, as many of us reading this will know, mental health and wellbeing are complex issues, and workforce management practitioners should approach them knowing that the terms often included under the umbrella of ‘wellbeing’ actually mean different things.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’?

Our language and how we think about ‘health’ tends to separate mental and physical health. In the UK at least, we rarely view them as being essentially combined and reliant on one another, and working with one another.

That said, let’s define a few of the topics one might seek to address with mental health and/or health and wellbeing programmes in workplaces:

  • Mental health: A person’s general emotional and psychological state, which varies naturally and may be generally good or generally bad. This term does not refer to a mental health condition (see below).
  • Physical health: the general wellbeing of a person’s physical body, which, as with mental health, can vary. The term does not refer to a health condition or disability (see below).
  • Wellbeing (broader term): Refers to a person’s sense of wellness more generally. May refer to mental health (above), physical health, or both.
  • Mental health condition: A condition specifically affecting someone’s emotional and psychological health. This may be a short-term or long-term condition.
  • Physical health condition: A condition affecting someone’s body. May be a short or long-term condition, and may be considered a disability.

This is one of the things that makes health and wellbeing tricky for employers and employees. For example, someone may have a mental health condition which is long-term, but generally have good mental health and a good sense of wellbeing day-to-day. Conversely, someone may have subjectively poor wellbeing or mental health but objectively excellent physical health.

The other is that mental health often falls between the binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In fact, in The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023, many disabled employees described an in-between. This was the state of ‘meh’, and it was often constant.

Or, in other words, “A constant state of ‘meh’,” as one employee described it, covered feelings that ranged from neutral to poor. Disabled employees’ wellbeing wasn’t necessarily bad – actually many described it as generally good – but it was inevitably affected by managing disabilities or conditions, by workplace stress, and worries about how they were perceived by managers and colleagues. Employees cited fatigue, pain and sleep problems related to their conditions, the side-effects of medications, and the impact of being disabled and carers, among other factors. A significant number of responses to the survey suggested a lack of confidence and self-belief, as well as an underlying and constant fear of being judged by colleagues, getting into trouble with employers, or losing their jobs because of their disabilities or health conditions.

There will often be elements of living with a disability or health condition that cannot be removed. This is true even in an inclusive culture, and if all adjustments have been made. The same is true of the interventions we mentioned before, such as wellbeing programmes and EAPs, especially if these in themselves are inaccessible – which many employees reported they are.

However, our findings showed something that employees, managers and employers alike could do that could make a major difference to disabled employees’ wellbeing and mental health. This was a small action, but one easily forgotten in pressured, fast-paced environments: recognising people, and giving praise and good feedback.

This was one of the key workplace experiences employees said made them feel better and feel valued. For disabled employees, recognition meant being valued, and also that they ‘belonged.’

It’s for this reason that we’ll leave you with our key recommendations for aiding the mental health and wellbeing of disabled employees at work: give sincere, truthful praise, and encourage a culture where colleagues do the same.

While this may seem simple – even too simple – we found a lot of evidence of the effectiveness of this approach in The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey. A great number of our respondents cited the importance of recognition in their answers, linking a poor sense of mental health or wellbeing to “Not being shown appreciation”, or being treated as “unwelcome and unwanted.”

Conversely, the power of support and recognition was a striking theme. We’ll end with this quote from an employee: “When I manage to be more realistic about my goals or when I get positive feedback from my colleagues [or my] manager for good work, I can feel my stress and other negative feelings dissipating.” This employee’s experience seems a great goal to set for Mental Health Awareness Week this year.

Mental Health,
Mental Health Awareness Week,
The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023,

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