Employees struggle to raise mental health issues with their employers despite pandemic driving spike in concerns around wellbeing

A new survey of 8000 UK adults has highlighted that two thirds of respondents (66 per cent) would not feel comfortable raising a mental or emotional wellbeing issue with their employer, and one third are offered no physical or emotional wellbeing support whilst in work.

This is especially concerning given that our 2022, ‘Healthier Nation Index’, also revealed that 1 in 3 people say their mental health has got worse in the last year. This highlights both a need and an opportunity to provide people with the right mental and emotional wellbeing support in UK workplaces.

These findings are especially pertinent as we approach Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, which this year focuses on loneliness. Loneliness is the difficult emotion we experience when our need for meaningful social contact and relationships is not met. Loneliness is on the rise, with nearly half of the UK population reporting feeling lonely at times. 

Our National Lead for Emotional Wellbeing, Gosia Bowling, commented: “It’s worrying to see the majority of UK employees are being left to manage mental or emotional wellbeing issues on their own in the workplace. The pandemic has affected the mental health of many employees, so it’s more important than ever that employers find ways to create inclusive and connected workplace environments where people feel supported. Not only will this help productivity, but it will also boost happiness levels.  

“As we also transition to more hybrid and remote working patterns, it is critical that employers also find ways to keep their employees feeling connected, which will help combat feelings of loneliness.”

Commenting on the findings, Nigel Owens, former international rugby union referee and Mental Wellbeing Ambassador for the Healthier Nation Index said: “We all need to take greater responsibility for our mental health – and that includes employers who have a big role to play in tackling the stigma around issues such as loneliness.  

“That’s why I’m proud to be championing this important campaign, urging everyone to ‘find5 with 5’ this Mental Health Awareness Week. Together we can help create a more supportive work environment.”

Gosia offers advice on how employers can play their part in creating a connected and inclusive workplace:

  • Notice the signs of loneliness

With two-thirds of employees unwilling to raise mental health issues with their employer, it is important companies are equipped to recognise signs of loneliness in others.

The emotional toll of loneliness can be seen in various ways, including a decline in appearance and hygiene, reduced social interaction in the office or even in the individual’s work performance and output. In remote workers, this may manifest in video meetings or calls. Are they less chatty? Is their voice lower or cracking? 

Alternatively, does the individual seem to be craving conversation and contact, or being overly talkative? Changes to behaviour patterns can provide indications as well as on opening to check in with employees about their wellbeing. 

In just five minutes, attuned employers can reach out  to employees presenting with signs of loneliness or distress and reach out to them. This could be as simple as asking ‘how are you doing?’ or offering more regular meetings to catch up on their work or 

  • “Find 5 with 5” 

Last week, we launched the ‘Find Time For Your Mind’ campaign, calling for people to #find5 and spend just five extra minutes a day exercising and focusing on their mental wellbeing. This additional time would boost the 40-minutes average in the survey to the NHS guideline of 75 minutes a week, putting people on a pathway to mental and physical wellbeing.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we are extending its ‘find 5’ campaign to encourage individuals to ‘find 5 with 5’ – spending their dedicated five minutes of wellbeing focus with five other people to encourage building connections with others, creating a more inclusive workplace.

This could include nominating an individual to lead five minutes of group guided breathing, sharing personal ‘wins’ each day over an instant messaging platform or even hosting mini ‘instructor-led’ fitness circuits each week.

Employers can pay a huge role in creating an environment where employees feel a sense of connection and belonging by promoting campaigns which foster connectivity and team building. 

  • Communication is key

For those experiencing feelings of loneliness, group video calls and water cooler conversations aren’t the answer. Individuals need to feel they are engaged in meaningful conversation.

Leaders should aim to spend at least five minutes with employees each week, practising ‘active listening’ – a skill that requires a genuine understanding and retention of what’s being said and providing a considered response.

This means not speaking over individuals or second-guessing what they’re saying. Instead, take a back seat, listen attentively to what’s being said and show you’ve taken it on board by repeating key phrases or asking relevant questions to demonstrate your understanding. 

Employers may also consider offering Emotional Literacy Training to staff – equipping them with the skills needed to recognise signs of distress in others and themselves and the confidence to approach them. This way they can nurture a workforce capable of recognising and tackling loneliness. 

Here at Nuffield Health, 98 percent of those who have completed Emotional Literacy Training found it beneficial and would recommend it to a colleague.

  • Targeting with formal support

While meaningful social interaction plays a key role in reducing loneliness, formal wellbeing support can also be invaluable. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) that offer direct and confidential access to a mental health expert.

It only takes five minutes to signpost employees towards the support on offer, along with guidance and encouragement on how to access the help available. This may be via email to employees, an office huddle or a virtual  ‘wellbeing hub’.

Not only do these services alleviate feelings of loneliness by supporting individuals , but they can also help employees to understand and interpret feelings of loneliness and address them – for example, breaking unhelpful thinking patterns.  

  • Get fit

It’s important to remember that mental and physical health are intrinsically linked. The chemicals our bodies release when we’re stressed, anxious and depressed can impact our physical health, causing nausea, upset stomach and headaches. And injury, illness and disabilities can similarly impact our mood and outlook.

Employers have a key role to play in supporting employees to stay physically fit and active. In just five minutes, business leaders can arrange, or raise awareness of, physical health screenings available in the office to uncover any underlying issues among employees.

Encouraging employees to #find5 throughout the working day could also be as simple as promoting regular exercise in morning meetings or creating assets to be distributed around the office or over email. Over a week, this adds up to 35 minutes – boosting the UK average 40-minute exercising time to the NHS-recommended 75 minutes per week.

  • No ‘one size fits all’ 

Finally, it’s important to remember that no single intervention works for everyone. The key to supporting the workforce is flexibility.

Employers should be flexible with letting staff choose five minutes of self-care each day, whether it’s simply stretching at their desk, going for a brisk five-minute walk between meetings or finding five minutes to do a short, guided meditation or breathing exercises. 

Similarly, flexibility may mean allowing employees to stagger start and finish times or take longer lunches and catch up on work later in the day. This can see employees meeting friends for coffee or spending more time with family.

Employers should also take five minutes with each employee to chat through any concerns they have and understand their healthiest work habits. This way they can consider how to offer flexible working opportunities that cater to the individual and allow everyone to thrive and overcome feelings of loneliness.

Last updated Tuesday 10 May 2022

First published on Tuesday 10 May 2022