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Emma O'Connor


This week (13th - 19th May) is Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme of the week is moving for your mental health. Emma O’Connor, Legal Director and Head of HR Training, reflects on what the week should highlight for employers and gives advice on how they can create a positive working environment which is supportive, sustainable, and engaging.

Our recent employment law article reported on the government’s plans to review what it sees as a “sick-note culture”, which seeks views on supporting people back into work. Many of the challenges with returning to work involve mental health concerns. This can be for a variety of, sometimes complex, reasons and no one cure will suit everyone. However, this year’s mental health awareness week is focusing on movement and the benefits of moving to one’s mental health.

“Movement” can mean many things to different people. Some like the challenge of a marathon. Some prefer solitary pursuits like the gym, swimming or cycling. Others prefer a walk in a local park, dancing or gardening. Whatever you choose, movement is a great way to enhance your wellbeing as well as improve your physical health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, movement, even a short 10-minute burst, helps us feel better about our bodies and improves self-esteem. It can also help reduce stress and anxiety and help us to sleep better. Good sleep is another pillar of good mental health. 

So, we understand the benefits of movement, how can employers help?


Employers should spot the signs

Many things can impact upon our mental health, both outside and inside of work. How can employers help to support their staff and promote a culture of awareness? Many of your colleagues will come to work bringing with them pressures from outside of work into the workplace. Many too may find work a place of anxiety be it their pay, their job security or issues with colleagues or clients. As employers, in particular managers, it is important to spot the signs (and spot them early) if someone is not ok at work. Is someone working early or late? Has someone’s job performance suddenly started to dip? Has someone’s appearance changed? All these could be signs that someone is not coping or needs some support.


Keeping on track

Are we robustly managing people’s holiday entitlement? Do we monitor working hours or sickness absence levels? If we monitor and manage issues early, it can, hopefully, avoid an individual going off on long term sickness absence, raising a complaint or even a claim. It’s all about using the tools we have in our “manager toolbox”.


Host a wellbeing workshop or manager training sessions

How about a workshop on managing stress and building resilience? We have lots of workshops – live, virtual or pre-recorded, focusing on mental health awareness. We can also run manager training sessions on spotting the signs of mental ill health, as well as obligations under the Equality Act 2010 focusing on disability discrimination and the duty to make reasonable adjustments. Get in touch with our employment law team to discuss. Remember, manager training on the Equality Act 2010 could give the business certain defences to employment tribunal claims.


Turning off after work

When Emma O'Connor speaks to groups of managers or employees, one of the biggest professional challenges they are facing right now is about being able to “turn off” from work. Working from home or remotely seems to have exacerbated this issue – presenteeism, but in a different way. Rather than “facetime”, it is now “log-in” time. Our phones and laptops are great, we have the freedom, in some cases, to be able to work when and where we like; however, the consequence of this is not being able to draw a line between work and home. As employers, we should be monitoring working levels, not just from a health and safety perspective but also from a wellbeing stance. Be mindful of when you send emails as a manager as well!

So, what about “leave the door at 4” once a week or a “wellbeing hour” to allow staff to do something movement-related for an hour each week. 


Culture of communication 

From experience, most issues arise because there is a communication disconnect between management and staff. If we thought critically as a manager about our communication style, what could we change? How easily can employees raise issues with you and with HR? Do you have mentoring or buddy system?

Whilst we might make the tools available to raise a concern, how open is the business - really? Do staff feel that they can raise issues about their mental health in a safe and non-judgmental environment? Also, if staff do raise issues, do managers (or others) have the tools to be able to signpost?

The phrase “a problem shared is a problem halved” rings true here. 


Get connected

Moving can also be a social pursuit – getting out and meeting other people. A group walk at lunchtime can encourage people from different parts of the business to connect, which in turn drives engagement and a sense of belonging. Joining a local business network in netball, football, or golf can also help networking opportunities as well as encourage physical activity.   


Celebrate and compete

Can we make mental health week a competition – who doesn’t like a bit of friendly rivalry between teams? 

Whose completed the most steps? Whose used the lift less this week? Maybe raise money for a local charity? Fun activities that bring people together and are a change from the norm.


Avoid the “one-offs”

Supporting and encouraging good mental health, supporting and encouraging your staff to switch off and “move", should not be a one-off event each year. It should be part of a long-term and sustainable approach and strategy to improving employee wellbeing and engagement. Think about your benefits packages, what do you do to support health and wellbeing for all staff? However, remember, a healthy approach to work does not need a hefty investment – a lunchtime walking group, for example, can be done with little expense. It is about thinking outside of the box at what you can achieve, and the best way to start is by asking your staff for their ideas!


In conclusion

This article is not about encouraging people to suddenly embark on a strenuous exercise programme. Always seek advice from your GP or health professional before changing or starting an exercise routine.

To find out more about the topics covered in this article, please contact Emma O’Connor at [email protected]

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

Get in touch

If you have any questions relating to this article or have any legal disputes you would like to discuss, please contact the Employment law team on

[email protected]
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