Put people first

Molly Courtice on why supporting employee wellbeing is more than just an engagement strategy 

Ensuring a safe working environment for your people is paramount. There is plethora of health, safety and environment training and protocols that are in place in almost every organisation and yet this often misses a key component: employee mental wellbeing.  

In Great Britain, 17% of people 16 and older reported having depression of some kind and 36% of the population are reported to have anxiety. Mental health is now a national emergency. Taboos and stigma (which are often promoted by organisational culture) may prevent us from talking about the problem, but they don’t alleviate the harm it causes.

The individual agony of clinical depression, exhaustively detailed by the late writer David Foster Wallace, is mirrored in the scale of its impact on national productivity. One study puts the annual cost of depression to the UK economy at £117.9 billion annually.  

The reasons for this decline in mental wellbeing are complex, but there’s no doubt that economic uncertainty and rapid technological change have a part to play

The reasons for this decline in mental wellbeing are complex, but there’s no doubt that economic uncertainty and rapid technological change have a part to play. Inflation rates are at a new high, rent costs are following the trend and online retailing has sent the high street into a spiral of decline. And the current cost-of-living crisis is only going to exacerbate the situation. As a result, organisations cannot ignore the need to support their employees’ wellbeing to keep them engaged and thriving in the workplace. 

Endemic stress, anxiety and depression aren’t the inevitable result of modern life. Learning professionals can and should play a key role in building mental resilience. We know that seeking help early makes a big difference, as does socialising an awareness of the warning signs. Other factors, like work/life balance, lifestyle and regular exercise are all things we can influence. The prize of doing so isn’t just a happier workforce; it’s significantly higher productivity, increased resilience and less time taken off. So, what can organisations do to help their people? 

Prioritise them

Mixed anxiety and depression have been estimated to cause 12.7% of all sickness absence days from work in Britain. Not only does this need to be considered in terms of overall employee wellbeing, but it’s also a key indicator of working practices that kill creativity, rather than cultivate it. There is growing evidence that high creativity is related to low stress, so organisations who prioritise workforce wellbeing can simultaneously drive innovation.

By giving your employees room to breathe, literally and figuratively, you are freeing up headspace for those who need it the most. Whether this is achieved through organising regular one-to-one mentoring sessions, scheduling specific ‘fresh-air’ breaks throughout the day or creating learning initiatives with the direct purpose of building mental resilience within your workforce, supporting your people is key.

A digital solution?

When used effectively, digital learning can directly tackle the issues, helping to overcome workplace taboos surrounding mental health and empower employees to recognise and respond positively to stress. This is why mental resilience programmes are moving to the top of the priority list for occupational health specialists in the corporate world. By making mental resilience into a key part of personal development, a well-coordinated programme can yield huge benefits for individual and organisation alike. In fact, the business impact can be exponential – with many
organisations reporting highly significant returns on investment. 

No, elearning alone cannot prevent or solve all mental wellbeing issues, but it can make a difference. Especially if it is underpinned by proven behavioural science methodology and supported by workplace infrastructure. Incorporating well researched, sensitive, relatable scenarios and tailored action plans can empower and equip learners with the skills to better manage their mental health. 

Also, while we want to encourage open discourse, often the privacy and non-threatening environment of an online course or mobile application can be a great first step and safe space for getting people engaged with the topic and taking action.

Safety first

A psychologically safe working environment comes hand in hand with employee mental wellbeing, but it also feeds empowerment and encourages sharing of thoughts, feelings and ideas. It is vital to foster a workplace in which feedback is encouraged and making mistakes is okay, as “creativity is thwarted in organisations where mistakes are taboo. When mistakes are punished, employees will avoid risk.” Ultimately, if your workforce feels safe to share ideas, with both peers and managers alike, creativity can bloom, and your employees will thrive.


But for this to happen, organisations need to actively develop learning initiatives that facilitate exploration. By giving employees the tools and freedom to understand and cultivate their own mental wellbeing, they are put in charge of their own journey. This gives them the opportunity to explore, understand and assess their own progress. Ultimately allowing employees the opportunity to drive their own mental resilience growth.

By creating a community of learning and a culture of mental health awareness, you provide that safe space to share thoughts, emotions, struggles and progress. These conversations build deeper understanding (of oneself and team) and act as a melting pot for innovation.

Transform the culture, empower your people

The knock-on effect of a widespread programme is cultural transformation, and that’s where we should be aiming. You wouldn’t walk past someone doing something blatantly physically unsafe at work without saying something about it. Yet the taboos and working practices still remain that facilitate, and sometimes encourage, ignoring co-workers who may be struggling with severe mental health issues. This is the kind of thing learning professionals can – and must – change. Learning is powerful, and we have the opportunity to use it to break down barriers; empowering our people to take action for themselves and others around them, creating a safer, happier and more productive workplace. 

Molly Courtice is performance consultant at Saffron InteractiveTwitter | LinkedIn 

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