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Supporting better mental health & wellbeing at work – How psychology practitioners can help: An interview with Peter Kelly

As a long-time advocate of reducing work-related stress, improving mental health and wellbeing for employees, and helping organisations find ways of working better for their staff, Peter Kelly, a senior psychologist with the HSE, has seen plenty of ways of doing it right, doing it wrong, and everything in between.

More than ever, we are seeing companies and individuals putting greater value on the need for workplace wellbeing, and psychologists are here to help guide teams down the right path. Peter Kelly shared his thoughts on the subject in an interview with me recently. 

How have you seen approaches to mental health and wellbeing change, or not, over the course of your career? Have companies started to make the link between good mental health and better productivity, better employee wellbeing?

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been acknowledging there’s a problem, or certainly a rising problem, with work-related stress. As this has increased, we’ve seen associated mental health issues – depression, anxiety – due to work-related stress also on the rise.

In the early days of my career, probably during the first ten years, it was hard to convince people than we should be doing something about this because although the numbers were rising, we were still stuck in a traditional model of treating the individual affected for symptoms, rather than looking for the root cause of their work-related stress. 

Treating the individual is a small part of what employers should be doing, which is looking at the organisation and thinking how can the organisation systemically help people to stay healthy at work. We’re talking about mental and physical health here, as when your mental health is good, your physical health is often good, and for workplaces concerned about accidents, or safety incidents, having people with good, engaged, enthusiastic mental states are less likely to have accidents and take risks.

My concern is always, as it was in the 1990s, is that we focus too much on the individual. We want the individual to be resilient, to be mindful, but then we put them back into an organisation that may not actually have the right work environment to facilitate this resilience and mindfulness. We are still defaulting back to the individual, rather than thinking about the individual and organisation, and how they interact with each other. 

There is so much evidence now to show that if we focus on the organisation element, as well as the individual and other secondary factors like the training of line managers and HR policies, then what you will get is a much more holistic approach. When we look at things from this angle, we find it can impact on people’s health, safety, wellbeing – the results are almost endless because we are looking at the entire picture rather than just the fragment of the individual – who is often just showing symptoms of a wider issue. It seems odd to have to tell people to look after their people, which is obvious to me, but it seems to be the main thing we’re having to get across still.” 

So organisations need to support individuals but also take a wider look at how they as a whole do things to improve and implement mental health and wellbeing practices – what are your suggestions for this?

“I would start by recommending an organisational wide risk assessment, focusing upon the health and wellbeing of the workforce, taking advice from those third parties that can facilitate this approach, such as psychologists and OH practitioners. Worker involvement is critical to developing effective communications, consultation, and informed decision making. Talking to employees in an open and transparent way will help support joint working in identifying workplace stressors, improving trust and confidence.

HSE recommends the Management Standards risk assessment approach as part of an employer’s duty in respect of work-related stress and mental ill-health. This is a good starting point in beginning to demonstrate compliance. From here, employers can start to address the primary organisational issues that are at the root cause of workplace stressors.

Always involve employees in these conversations by talking to them; listen to what they are saying and value the importance of their contribution in the process. Employees will often have solutions and ideas around workplace stress and wellbeing, but unfortunately, their views are often not sought and are not engaged with in identifying solutions. This has to change if improvement is to be achieved. Employees are a part of that process – they’re not an afterthought, and they need to think about the culture of the organisation and the sustainability of worker involvement as a fundamental feature of this culture. If organisations do not commit to this, workplace stressors and their impact on employees’ mental ill-health will only be exacerbated, resulting in a worsening of trust, confidence, and employee engagement.”

Many companies will want to know their ROI of something like this before they spend out, but is it really possible to measure this, and should it just be something done as good practice instead of being limited by finances?

“It’s very difficult to calculate a tangible ROI in respect of financial return. The benefits will be shown by improved efficiency, reduced sickness absence, increased productivity, morale, and motivation. Organisational commitment to doing the right thing will impact significantly on business confidence and performance. 

The top 100 companies, out of the 500 ranked by The Times as being best to work for, have one consistent factor: all have health, wellbeing, and mental health as part of their organisational objectives. They make a pledge that they will look after their people, and they know and understand the benefits of doing so for the business and the individual. When people are looked after, they will then look after the organisation – that’s how the relationship works and creates positive feedback and energy.” 

To find out more about Peter Kelly’s work, you can contact him via LinkedIn 

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