I have spent much of the last year or so talking to employers about mental health and wellbeing at work. The focus has been on raising awareness of the issue, encouraging and equipping people to have conversations about it (walking towards rather than ignoring colleagues who may need support), to look out for symptoms and warning signs in themselves and others, to challenge their mind sets and potentially to prevent problems arising in the first place.

Recently a client asked me to think about what risk assessment might look like from a health and safety perspective in the context of stress. That has helped me clarify where mental health and wellbeing sit within the wider context of the work we do at byrne∙dean.

At byrne∙dean we exist to help employers create kinder, fairer and more productive workplaces. Wellbeing is, of course, a central part of all three of those goals. Our work around mental health awareness is so important partly because the whole area is such a huge unknown for most people, which causes fear which in turn leads to silence, stigma and greater individual suffering (which then impacts productivity). Individuals need to feel confident in addressing problems when they arise in others and be able to manage themselves, hopefully to avoid problems arising.

My client’s question was at an organisational level – how can the firm create an environment that reduces as far as possible the risk of problems arising? Pausing there, mental health problems are not just caused by dysfunctional workplaces. There are all sorts of causes, some environmental and some not. Anxiety, for example, is as likely to be caused by outside work factors as those within the workplace and it is usually very difficult (and perhaps ultimately pointless) to try to identify exactly what caused it. Whatever the cause, the problems will manifest themselves in the workplace and employers and employees need to be equipped to understand and deal with them.

The amount of time we spend at work, the high levels of pressure we experience and the importance of our work to our sense of self and fulfilment all mean that the workplace is going to be a significant contributor to stress and anxiety problems. The same is true of depression (whether it is anxiety induced depression or otherwise). And this is where the overlap with our wider work really comes to the fore.

At byrne∙dean we talk a lot about employee engagement and how it increases individual and organisational performance and reduces employment risk. We focus on communication (largely at a one to one level), accountability and exploring different perspectives. We encourage and equip everyone in the workplace to be responsible, to focus more on the impact they have and to have meaningful conversations in which they actually listen (more than they speak). We want managers and leaders really to understand their teams, the individual members of the team and to respect and harness their differences for the greater and individual good. If the manager has an understanding of mental health then this will help identify issues as they arise. But more importantly perhaps, effective conversations with appropriate follow up action should prevent problems arising in the first place. If I know my team members and what they are good at, feel comfortable with, respond to and what they don’t, then I will optimise their contribution to the team and also reduce the risk of them developing stress and anxiety.

When we talk about engagement we often refer to David Rock’s SCARF® model which looks at five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness which are fundamental to establishing and maintaining an individual’s mental wellbeing. A threat to any of these will very often lead to heightened states of anxiety which, if not addressed, may lead to anxiety disorders of various kinds. Obviously each element can also be used positively to increase engagement.

Engagement is itself a positive driver of mental health and wellbeing. Equally, the reverse is true. Mental wellbeing is a driver of engagement. The ways in which we look to drive the one will likely have very similar effects on the other. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the two are inter dependent and, on some level, different ways of describing the same thing.

I also think, and this is based on my direct personal experience and from observing others in workplaces, that we are all capable of handling far higher levels of stress when we believe in, or are engaged by, the source of the stress. Engaged employees will continue to contribute discretionary effort in stressful situations. My own mental health problems arose only when I came to realise that my own values and goals were at considerable odds to those of the organisation in which I worked. I was suddenly not engaged and with bucket loads of stress; not where you want employees to be!

So, if you want to reduce the risk of mental health problems in your workplace, as well as raising awareness of the issue generally, in byrne∙dean language try ‘starting a conversation about it’, think more about how you can engage your people, and create a kinder, fairer workplace. Which is what we do at byrne∙dean.