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What WHO mental health guidelines mean for the workplace

5th October 2022

New, landmark World Health Organisation guidelines on mental health and the workplace [here] are an indication of just how serious an issue it has become for the world’s population. As the WHO says: “there is no health without mental health”, and yet services in countries around the world are failing to meet needs. The WHO’s latest World mental health report (June 2022) has suggested that 15% of all working-age adults have experienced a psychological disorder.

The WHO has highlighted the central role of toxic cultures, how workplaces amplify any outside issues that people have, turning them into mental ill-health through feelings of inequality, discrimination and bullying. In other words, workplace cultures matter, and employers need to face up to their role in making them.

Having teamed up with the International Labour Organisation, the WHO is urging employers to take more action. The guidelines recommend in particular that organisations address issues such as heavy workloads, pay more attention to the kinds of negative behaviours that create distress among employees, and provide training to managers on how to prevent creating a stressful work environment.

Here’s the crux of things. For many years in the UK, HR has been taking a lead on awareness-raising and changing attitudes towards mental ill-health, making it much easier for employees to talk openly. Employee wellbeing programmes were a major focus even before the pandemic period. So it’s easy enough for employers to flag the work they’ve already done, or introduce another mental health strategy of awareness and support in line with WHO guidelines.

But none of this appears to be addressing the underlying problem, which is a more fundamental one around psychological safety and how this is made. You can introduce as many mental health workshops and duvet days as you like, it doesn’t make people feel positive and secure about their everyday working role over time.

There needs to a recognition of the basic role of workplace relationships in determining how the typical ups and downs of any job affect people. In a toxic workplace, any kind of challenge, any disappointment, a clash in personalities or minor disagreement, becomes exaggerated. Problems snowball.

Better mental health in the workplace is built on good conversations, on the trust and confidence people have in each other. In order to create a ‘clear air’ workplace built around feelings of psychological safety, organisations need to:

– identify the basic strengths and weaknesses of current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. Do you have a continuum of options for people to get support when matters do escalate? Does everyone agree to try and resolve matters at the most local, informal level possible?

– put more resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other. Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Other staff will need support if they are to have difficult or courageous conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict.

– support and train managers to deal with formal complaints and grievances consistently and fairly; when conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing, it’s critical that the decision-makers involved, typically senior managers, are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions;

– motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying — skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a a department;

– make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of line managers and their staff in terms of encouraging open, positive conversations, and make it clear about support and development available.