Moral responsibilities

You need key support structures in place to make you a decent and humane employer, to fulfil what the law states as your 'duty of care'.

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UK law states that employers have a 'duty of care' to their employees. This has existed since the Health and Safety Act 1974, which states that "it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all of [its] employees". This now includes mental as well as physical health.

However, it's incredibly vague.

As we saw in the last section on legal requirements, the tangible legislation stemming from this is pretty minimal. Abiding by the two specific legal requirements set out for companies isn't enough. Being a decent and humane employer means doing a bit more.

Specifically, we think it means you should do two things at the very minimum in order to be a humane employer:

  1. Ask your teams how they're feeling, mentally and emotionally, on a regular basis
  2. Have a procedure in place for what to do if someone is experiencing poor mental health

We'll look at the need to survey employees first.

Just as with taxes, so with poor employee mental health: ignorance is no excuse for inaction.

This is why all companies need to take the pulse of how employees are feeling, and how their mental health and wellbeing is at the moment. Without data, it's easy to do nothing — or to prioritise the wrong thing.

How to measure the mental health and wellbeing of your teams

To measure employee mental health and wellbeing effectively through a questionnaire, you need a few things.

You need the right questions for your company

What 'right' means depends on what you want to assess. Do you want the questionnaire to be more robust and identify the most severe cases, or do you want to get a general lie of the land when it comes to how people are feeling? Do you want it to be quantitative so you can track a number over time, or are you more interested in picking out the qualitative themes?

The classic questionnaire used by medical professionals is what's known as PHQ-7 GAD-9, but it's aimed at diagnosing people who've sought professional help, so is probably too severe for a whole-company questionnaire.

Here are some broader ideas for agree/disagree statements if you want a quantitative questionnaire. Score each from 1 to 5, 'strongly disagree' to 'strongly agree', and mark any as a red flag if the average score of all employees on that question is below 3.

  • "I would describe my overall mental health as 'good' at the moment"
  • "I feel pretty content on a day-to-day basis"
  • "I feel like my life has meaning"
  • "I get more out of my work than just a salary"
  • "I feel like people are on my side at work"
  • "I feel equipped to handle the stresses that work throws at me"
  • "I'm able to sufficiently switch off outside of work hours"
  • "I'm able to sleep at night without being disturbed by worries about work"
  • "I rarely feel like I'm about to burn out"
  • "I rarely feel unable to work due to anxiety"
  • "I rarely feel unable to work due to low mood or depression"
  • "I feel able to talk to someone in my life if I'm not feeling great, mentally or emotionally"
  • "I feel able to talk to a colleague if I'm not feeling great, mentally or emotionally"
  • "I feel able to talk to my manager if I'm not feeling great, mentally or emotionally"

Here are some suggested open-ended questions if you'd prefer a qualitative questionnaire, where you can code the responses and group by theme to get a heat-map of what the most pressing problem areas might be. It's best to keep qualitative questionnaires shorter, as each question typically takes more time to fill out.

  • Thinking back over the past week, how have you been feeling out of 10?
  • (If not 10) What has stopped you from being a 10?
  • List three emotions that you've felt this week.
  • When you're not feeling great, how does that usually manifest? (e.g. stress, fatigue, anxiety)

You need the right way of asking for your company

This depends on the internal culture — for example, are people wiling to share how they're feeling publicly, or willing to be followed up with if they're not feeling great, or is it best to keep it fully anonymous? — and also on the internal tools you already use.

If people are used to using Typeform or Polly or another particular tool, then it probably makes sense to stick with what people know. Unless you think a totally separate tool might be more confidential, if multiple people in your company are admins on Typeform, for example. It also depends on your budget: there are slicker survey tools available, but they cost more.

You need the right cadence for your company

"How often should I survey my staff's mental health?" risks becoming a "how long is a piece of string?" sort of question. We recommend surveying employees quarterly as a benchmark, but if your company's industry or structure makes it more susceptible to poor employee mental health, then it might be worth more frequent measurement.  The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a list of questions (that we've adapted) to ask yourself in order to identify if employees in your organisation is at higher risk of poor mental wellbeing:

  1. Do customers or service users think they have a right to the service, benefit, or product?
  2. Will customers be worse off if they don't receive it?
  3. Is the intervention to the customer unwelcome?
  4. Is the organisation subject to periodic external scrutiny or inspection of performance?
  5. Does the organisation have strictly imposed rules on sickness,absence and/or performance?
  6. Are pay rises linked to performance/attendance?
  7. Does the organisation have a ‘macho’ approach to stress or mental ill health?
  8. Has the organisation recently been subject to changes that have: increased the workload; reduced the size of the workforce but not the amount of work; resulted in areas being understaffed; changed the type or rate of work; changed the way in which the work is completed?

If you answer 'yes' to four or more of these questions, then your company is at higher risk and you should think about surveying your employees more often than quarterly.

Furthermore, drastic changes to how we work and live are happening incredibly quickly at the moment, so it might also be worth having some flexibility around cadence. Big changes in the world can have a sudden impact on people's mental health, so it might be worth sending out another survey if COVID restrictions change again, for example.

You need to work out which roles might need extra attention

Risk of work-related poor mental wellbeing isn't always evenly distributed in organisations. Certain roles or levels might be more susceptible, and it might be worth checking in with them more frequently. HSE also has a list of questions to ask yourself in order to identify if a certain role is at higher risk:

  1. Does the role involve dealing with customers or service users?
  2. Do employees in the role deal with complaints as a large percentage of their role?
  3. Is the work reactive — in other words, does workload depend largely on customers and their individual issues?
  4. Are employees in the role expected to be contactable or to reply outside of normal working hours?
  5. Are changes imposed on the work of the employee by outside regional or national bodies, authorities or ‘headquarters’?

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