Tackling mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Author: Maha Khan Phillips

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, Professional Investor talked to Alison Unsted, UK Chief Executive Officer of the City Mental Health Alliance, about the key steps that organisations can take to prioritise mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.


Wellbeing in the workplace is a critical issue, and it is one that businesses are still grappling with. A recent survey from the Peninsula Group suggests that nearly half of UK bosses have seen an increase in mental health issues. 43% of employers stated that they’ve witnessed people talking more about their mental health over the previous 12 months. However, only 12% of employees have confided in their bosses, and one in seven of those who did speak to their boss said that nothing was done to support them.

Alison Unsted, UK Chief Executive Officer and Global Strategy Director at the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), says that progress has continued with those organisations who have been genuinely committed to wellbeing, and who have prioritised it as a key issue. “There is a number of things that leading organisations are doing. They are really embedding [mental health and wellbeing] into their organisational strategy, not just seeing this as an add on,” she says.

There is plenty that businesses can do if they are tackling these issues for the first time, she says. “It needs to be a priority on the strategic level of your organisation so it becomes the responsibility of not just a few committed leaders but filters down across all levels of leadership.”

Growing Priority

Unsted believes that businesses can start their journeys by focusing on socialisation. “In this country we have come a long way in terms of how we talk about mental health and about reducing the stigma, but it’s still there, so the first step in the journey is socialisation and starting the conversation about mental health. It could be anything from running campaigns to creating an environment where people feel safe and able to speak out and ask for help if they need it. What we have found to be really powerful is storytelling, and these stories of lived experience are even more impactful if it’s coming from senior leaders in organisations.”

Businesses who are talking about mental health need to be prepared to sign post someone to help if they need it. “You don’t want to start talking about it, and someone speaks up and then not know what to do after that,” says Unsted.

Step two in the journey is typically skill development. “How are you ensuring that everyone has the skills needed to have the confidence and comfort to talk about mental health? Do you have the ability to spot the signs if someone is struggling? It’s about raising awareness and about education,” she says.

The next stage is around sustaining and integrating good mental health practice across the organisation. “For example, think about how good mental health practice is integrated across the employee lifecycle, from your attraction, recruitment and onboarding processes, HR policies and processes, such as performance management, absence management and for those exiting the organisation. How do we ensure that mental health is a consideration in all of these events?” she says.

It’s also about integrating the issues more broadly internally and across the business ecosystem, Unsted points out. Is your organisation engaging with suppliers to ensure best practice, or have you set up wellbeing as part of performance assessments for managers and leaders? 

Unsted believes the final step is around health creation.

“Good work is good for our mental health. It gives us social connection, recognition, meaning and financial wellbeing. So it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of helping to maintain good mental health. Our national health service and systems are under an incredible amount of pressure, and people are waiting a long time for support. That support could be more accessible through the workplace. We want to see organisations really embracing that,” she says.

Toolkit for Parents

One example where the workplace can be a place of support is for parents whose children are struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. In 2020, one in six children (16%) aged five to 16 had a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine (11%) in 2017. It is why CMHA has created a toolkit for parents, designed to provide an overview of the key topics, and signpost to further information from trusted sources and share insights from parents and young people.

Unsted says the toolkit has been downloaded thousands of times. “It really highlighted the need and urgency of the situation, so we launched some research earlier this year to look at what the impact of children’s mental health has been on parents in the workplace, and the research shows there is a high proportion of parents who are impacted. Organisations are now thinking about what they can do to help parents, for example by supporting families in getting a diagnosis or assessment.”
CMHA is also looking at the impact of ways of working on wellbeing, and, separately, at the elements that contribute to ill health, but also those factors that promote good health. “We’re doing lots of work around the intersectional lens of mental health, whether it is race, reproductive health -menopause, fertility, baby loss, or endometriosis. We’re also focusing on suicide which still feels incredibly stigmatised. People are more comfortable talking about anxiety and depression but suicide is still something people have a lot of fear and discomfort over.”
The good news is that organisations are starting to give more prominence to wellbeing as a strategic objective, she says. “Ultimately, it is about making work more purposeful, and including wellbeing at the heart of it.”

Related Articles

Oct 2022 » Wellbeing

Mental Health and the City

May 2021 » Wellbeing

Head and heart: How stress affects investment decision making

Jan 2021 » Wellbeing

Five ways to improve resilience at work

Sep 2020 » Wellbeing

How to improve your mental well being while working from home