Mental health at work – is it the employer’s or employee’s responsibility?

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for employers but supporting mental health in the workplace, and in particular employees who are struggling, has perhaps been one of the most complex. 

From anxiety over their physical health to loneliness while working remotely, many people have experienced additional mental strain in 2020. In fact, according to findings in our Hays Barometer Report, less than half of professionals rate their current mental health and wellbeing as positive, down 21 per cent since before the outbreak.

At the same time, there is a mismatch between the level of support employers say they’ve offered and employees say they’ve received.  While 72 per cent of employers say their organisation’s focus on mental health and wellbeing has increased either significantly or moderately throughout this pandemic, just 26 per cent of professionals agree.

Either way, the recent decline of positive mental health shows action is needed to turn this situation around – which begs the question, who is responsible for caring for the mental health and wellbeing of staff at work? 

The case for employer responsibility

Today, many people have come to expect that their leaders will not only be supporting mental health in the workplace but will take responsibility for it, too. An overwhelming 67 per cent of the professionals we spoke to believe their employer has a responsibility to support their mental health and wellbeing at work. 
Interestingly, almost all (94 per cent) of employers agree and believe they should shoulder either significant or moderate responsibility for their employees’ mental health & wellbeing. 
Clearly, employers have a critical role to play in fostering and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace. There are, after all, many benefits for employers, not least of which is building a resilient and productive workforce who can perform at their best regardless of what’s thrown at them. 
Employers also have an ethical duty of care to their employees. According to Stats NZ, nearly one in four New Zealanders aged 18 and over experienced ‘poor’ mental wellbeing on the World Health Organization’s WHO-5 scale. There is a strong case to be made that since mental health is a condition that affects so many people, it should be considered part of an employer’s ethical responsibility to cultivate a workplace environment that is supportive of anyone experiencing a mental health condition. 
There are, of course, also legal obligations for employers to provide a mentally and physically safe working environment. It is a legislative requirement that employers create a working environment that does not, as far as is reasonably possible, cause harm to the mental health of their staff.  
Meanwhile, post-pandemic, mental health and wellbeing support will remain an important benefit consideration that will resonate with employees in the new era of work. After all, employees won’t forget if their organisation failed to support their mental health and wellbeing during this time of crisis. 
Therefore, attracting and retaining top talent will involve more than a traditional benefits package. Throughout this pandemic, professionals have reassessed what’s really important in their lives and mental health and wellbeing has come to the fore. Moving forward, being honest and genuine in the mental health support offered will be crucial if you are to not only attract but also retain your staff. 

The case for employee responsibility

Employees, meanwhile, also have a role to play. Ultimately, as an employee, you need to take care of your own physical as well as mental health and safety, too. After all, our work constitutes a huge part of our lives, but there are times when it can also cause us stress or impact our work-life balance. Therefore, knowing how to care for your own mental health at work is vital if you are to succeed and advance your career.  
As an employee, you also have a responsibility to comply with the health and safety conditions laid out by your employer. From formal requirements, such as taking set breaks during working hours, to participating in voluntary initiatives, such as internal step challenges or walking meetings, it is advisable to comply and get involved with any and all practices aimed at caring for your mental health. 

So, what’s the solution?

Ultimately, there is a symbiotic relationship between employers and employees when it comes to maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. While employers should establish policies, procedures and initiatives, employees need to elect to put up their hand and get involved in the programs offered. 
For employers, this means that the mental health and wellbeing of employees must remain a top priority. Whatever steps you take in the months ahead, acting to improve mental health and wellbeing, along with the physical health and safety of staff, must be front and centre of every decision, both short and long-term.
For employees, this means cooperating with your employer’s health and safety conditions and taking steps to care for your own mental health in the workplace.

Want to know more?

Our Hays Barometer Report provides a snapshot of how employers are acting to protect the mental health and wellbeing of their staff and how employees’ mental health and wellbeing currently stands. Download your copy for more detailed insights. 

About this author

Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director, began working at Hays in 1993 and since then he has held a variety of consulting and management roles across the business. In 2004 he was appointed to the Hays Board of Directors. He was made Managing Director of Australia and New Zealand in 2012.

Prior to joining Hays, he had a background in human resource management and marketing, and has formal qualifications in Psychology.

Follow Nick on LinkedIn

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