Today is the 25th annual Mental Health Day, a fact which has passed with little fanfare.  It’s not clear if this is a sign of progress (i.e. mental health is now so engrained in the workplace that there’s less need to publicise World Mental Health Day), or something else.

The theme of World Mental Health Day 2017 is ‘Workplace Wellbeing’.  This seems particularly apt to me, having spent two days last week chairing plenary sessions on stress and mental health in the workplace as part of our bi-annual EMEA Clinic.  These sessions involved HR professionals and General Counsel, sharing best practice and key concerns and problems, and to me they demonstrated that these remain very live issues.

One question kept recurring in each plenary session:

  • “How do we engrain workplace wellbeing, particularly mental health wellbeing, as a workplace issue?

This was the gateway to a wider number of questions, which we’ve summarised below:

  • How do HR get Management to ‘buy in’ to a workplace wellbeing programme?

The answer is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, although for most businesses, management buy-in can be achieved by referring to the figures.  The costs of absenteeism, presenteeism are well known, but may employers also fail to realise that not having appropriate workplace wellbeing processes in place leads to higher staff turnover, which leads in turn to wasted training costs and recruitment fees.  Simply put, if businesses are not retaining staff, they have to keep hiring and training replacements, which costs them even more money.

  • How do employers get employees to engage with workplace wellbeing issues and programmes?

The general consensus was that ensuring employee buy-in to any programmes can be difficult, but that this requires not just focussing on Mental Health Awareness Week, World Mental Health Day, and other ”one off” occasions, but encouraging a culture where employees actively engage with each other and with their line managers not just about mental health, but about life, workload and other matters freely and frequently.  Employees need to see that they and their wellbeing are valued and that this isn’t just a ‘tick box’ exercise for the employer.

  • How do employers help employees to open up about issues they are experiencing?

Again, this is a culture issue.  It is not about asking line managers or even HR to be mental health “experts”, but simply helping them to understand that the most important, the most impactful question they can ask someone is “How are you?”. This starts with regular check-ins – line manager to employee, HR to line manager, employee to employee.  Ask employees how they are doing (and, more importantly, actively listen to and care about the answer!).  Once employees know that the question is being asked genuinely, then they will feel more respected and cared for and as a result will be more likely to share any difficulties they are facing.

Returning to the lack of fanfare this year over World Mental Health Day, perhaps this implicitly acknowledges the fact that this is not an issue which can be addressed piecemeal by focussing on World Mental Health Day, Mental Health Awareness Week, or any single campaign, but is rather a whole year, whole company, whole life issue that employers and employees need to engage with on a daily basis.  After all, as the WHO says, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  Something we can all aspire to, both in our professional and personal lives, I think.