Be proactive, not reactive | How women can work with their employer to get better mental health support

woman being comforted by colleague, mental ill health

By Liz Walker, HR Director, Unum UK

Mental health problems affect both men and women but not always in equal measure.

In fact, Unum UK’s claims experience suggests younger women are more likely to claim sickness absence from work for mental health reasons than male counterparts.

Without the correct support, working conditions and environment, mental health concerns can quickly escalate.

Liz Walker, HR Director at Unum UK, discusses how women can work with their employer to get the mental health support they need from the start.

Start the conversation

Symptoms of mental health can build up when not properly recognised or assessed, but they’re hard to combat when so many of us don’t feel confident enough to open-up about how we’re feeling.

However, women have an opportunity to lead the way in breaking down barriers and work with their bosses to promote an honest and open dialogue about support in the workplace.

When it comes to conversations about mental illness, we need to remember it’s a topic which can be very personal. We need to take a sensitive approach for women to feel they can really share how they’re feeling.

Ask your boss if you can invite in experts who not only provide talks about how to recognise and manage mental health symptoms but can provide recommendations on general self-care and stress management for when you feel at your most vulnerable.

Some companies may even have access to Mental Health First Aid training, equipping workers with knowledge and insight on how to look after their colleagues and their own personal mental well-being.

Once you’ve started those much-needed conversations, you’ll find stigma begins to lift and more women may be comfortable to share how they’re feeling and most importantly, will ask for help when they need it.

Make self-care a priority

According to a Health and Safety Executive report, women in Great Britain self-reported more work-related stress, depression or anxiety than men.

Self-care should be a priority for women because inside and outside of work, you need to be attuned to and understand what you need to be your most constructive, effective, and authentic self.

Rather than narrowly defining self-care as just physical health, we need to pay attention to a wider set of criteria, including care of the mind, emotions, environment, time, and resources.

Start by paying more attention to your energy levels. For most busy professionals, getting eight hours of sleep every night is (sadly) not realistic.

However, it’s important to at least try to recharge your batteries during the week since the quality of a person’s sleep has a strong association with wellbeing, so designate a few extra nights of the week to get some extra shut-eye.

It’s equally important to build restoration breaks into your workday. When we start to feel our body signalling we need a break, stepping out of your workspace for a few minutes can help shift perspective and gain mental clarity. Even a five-minute guided meditation with your headphones in can work wonders.

Try scheduling more walking meetings or make a point of having lunch away from your desk with a colleague or friend. You’ll be surprised how even small pockets of ‘me-time’, can have a big influence on boosting productivity levels during the day.

Find out what your work has to offer

Mental health concerns aren’t something you have to try to resolve on your own. Today, many workplaces are more in-tune with meeting the needs of their employees and supporting overall wellbeing.

There are schemes available which can help with physical, emotional and financial issues, but it’s up to you to make the effort to find out about what’s available.

Many businesses provide emotional employer-sponsored resources in a number of ways such as  through employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or through early intervention methods.

At Unum, we also recently introduced a Mental Health Pathway scheme – an early intervention service for policy holders – which gives both employees and employers access to specialist support within 48 hours, as soon as concerns are raised.

If you think there is not enough information for teams in your company about the wellbeing initiatives they could benefit from, encourage senior team members responsible for such programmes to run company-wide presentations to increase awareness and highlight these opportunities to all staff. 

Encourage support specific to women

The World Health Organisation points out gender differences in patterns of seeking help.

There are issues specific to women which need to be more widely discussed and recognised in the workplace, without them feeling like they are asking for ‘special treatment’.

For example; in the UK in 2017, up to 15 percent of new mothers developed postnatal depression, and other conditions like endometriosis, infertility and menopause all cause both physical and psychological impacts to women at various stages in their lives, according to a Work Foundation report.

We need to work with our employers to continue raising awareness of these issues, the huge, emotional impact they can have and enhancing the support mechanisms required to help women cope with difficult circumstances.

Whether you think flexible working should be introduced for hospital appointments, a clearer maternity/paternity policy implemented or further clarification where concerns like miscarriage and stillbirth sit on leave calendars, make sure you voice these concerns through the employee forums and channels available.

Workplace surveys, annual reviews or even by organising a meeting with your company’s HR department, are ways women can raise their voices and communicate what they really need, especially in places your workplace may not even realise it is falling short.

It is no longer an option for an employer to assume that mental health is somebody else’s responsibility, but fortunately, today’s workplaces are more willing to collaborate with female employees, so they feel empowered to speak out.

If women are more confident in sharing feedback on their mental health and the support they need, everyone struggling -regardless of gender- can have an equal path towards recovery.

About the author

Liz is HR Director at Unum UK. In her time at the company, she has spearheaded work to remove the stigma of mental health in the workplace and actively works to help raise awareness of mental health as an asset and an integral part of a holistic health and wellbeing strategy.

Unum is a leading employee benefits provider offering Income Protection, Life insurance, Critical Illness, and dental cover through the workplace.

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