Employee mental health and wellbeing – tips from business leaders

Unlimited annual leave and access to nature fuels staff wellbeing at Lakeside North Harbour

Supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing is increasingly important for businesses of all shapes and sizes to deliver a happy and productive team and attract new talent.

In 2021, poor mental health was the leading cause of time off work in the UK, costing employers an estimated £43 billion.

Simon Bateman is an asset manager at Portsmouth’s leading workspace, Lakeside North Harbour – known for its immediate access to green and blue space and abundance of wildlife within its 130-acre grounds.

He believes there is an urgent need to focus on mental health and wellbeing in workplaces, from a company’s culture to the design of office space.

“Creating platforms for debate, conversation and action around mental health and wellbeing are where the real value lies,” he says.

Here Bateman interviews four business leaders based at Lakeside on their approach to workplace mental health – including initiatives such as unlimited annual leave to help employees connect with nature.

New ways of working

Creating and maintaining a flexible working culture can increase employee productivity and wellbeing. This approach works for Jeri Williams, director of Portsmouth-based Smooth Accounting and Business Excellence ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’.

As a results-only working environment, employees of Smooth Accounting can work where they feel most productive and comfortable, whether from the office, home or even abroad. Williams takes a trailblazing approach when 75%  of jobs advertised do not offer flexible working options.

“Offering full flexibility is supporting a good work-life balance, enabling staff to easily manage childcare or caring commitments and health appointments, and reducing stress. Additionally, enabling staff to choose their working environment can improve both productivity and mental health,” Williams said.

From January 2022, Smooth Accounting is also trialling unlimited annual leave for employees over 12 months, adding further weight to its results-only culture to drive productivity and give employees more ownership of their work/life balance.

According to Williams, teamwide trust is essential: “Flexible working and initiatives that give staff more ownership and freedom are underpinned by treating everybody as adults and having real trust in your team. By trusting people and empowering them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, they will naturally work harder and, hopefully, manage their time better. This can have a positive impact on mental health and the overall business.”

Reconfiguring the office

Brothers Will Kelly and Leo Kelly spearhead Lakeside-based workplace provider Portsdown, which delivers commercial and educational workspaces for clients including The National Gallery, Amazon and Cambridge University. According to Will Kelly, reimagining and redesigning the office post-pandemic is essential to benefiting employee mental health and workplace productivity: “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected what businesses need from their space. While health and safety have always been a focus, ‘safe’ wasn’t something we’d use to describe offices in the traditional sense. Now, organisations must work harder to attract talent and ensure that staff and visitors are, and feel, safer, in a post-pandemic world.”

Portsdown has rolled out a hybrid structure, a split between office and working from home. “People are social animals, and hybrid offers the best of both worlds. Office space is important for connection and collaboration with colleagues, while home working helps for tasks that require focus time or continued online meetings,” Will Kelly said.

“As a result, the type of space is changing, shifting away from offices that are built to support solo and individual activities – which can now be done at home – to more creative and collaborative environments with a focus on a choice of work settings. Our clients and we want a destination that helps their workforce deliver their best work that promotes creativity, productivity and collaboration,” he added.

Research has found that social interaction is a critical mechanism for boosting health, suggesting that individuals benefit from interaction delivered through office environments. This may come from ‘watercooler’ conversations with colleagues to more HR-led interactions that can spur further formal help employees need.

Like Will Kelly, Carl Hewitt, joint founder and director of Lakeside-based media and web agency Hewitt Matthews, believes having well-designed office space and social interaction opportunities with other businesses is beneficial.

“The atmosphere at Lakeside is friendly, supportive and full of energy, and we’ve collaborated with many companies also based on the premises – a community feel outside our own business is ideal,” Hewitt said.

Beyond four walls

Throughout the pandemic and the resulting national lockdowns, the benefit of access to nature and the outdoors on mental health and wellbeing was reaffirmed. Many studies, including Government’s 2020 review into green space, highlight the importance of incorporating green and, where possible, blue space into the design of buildings and workplaces to promote better mental health and wellbeing. Notably, highlighting that “by having greener neighbourhoods through threading different types of green – and blue – infrastructure throughout our communities including schools, our hospitals, our workplaces and our homes” offers multiple health benefits.

Access to nature was a key factor for Hewitt when choosing to base the Hewitt Matthews premises at Lakeside.

He said: “Lakeside’s buildings are incredible, but it’s the proximity to nature that makes the location really special. Having a lake right on our doorstep, where we often see wildlife, including rabbits and birds, means on stressful days, we’ve been able to get out into nature to reset.”

James Fernandes, Managing Director of recruitment firm Carrington West, agrees: “We’ve been and grown at Lakeside for eight years. Pockets of rugged woodland surround it, and the lake is a stone’s throw away.”

Yet, according to Fernandes, it is not just enough to invest in quality space and surroundings. Fostering a culture that encourages staff to utilise these environments and realise the benefits is key. “We encourage staff to hold walking meetings around the lake and to step away from the desk to spend time in nature as part of their working routines,” Fernandes said.


Staff wellbeing, learning and development are at the heart of Carrington West’s culture, seeing it achieve platinum status from Investors in People (IIP), the highest IIP accolade. Fernandes commented: “We want to offer employees what they would want for themselves and to do this, engage and listen to their needs before making decisions that might impact them – it’s all in the philosophy of looking after our staff.”

A recent study by Cambridge University found that the number of people experiencing anxiety almost doubled during the pandemic, reiterating the importance of a people-first strategy and the urgent need for employers to proactively provide support and work with employees towards positive solutions.

Bateman added: “Perhaps the most important initial step that businesses and leaders can take is to create and maintain a culture where people feel safe, both in regards to physical safety around COVID-19 and sharing mental health concerns or difficulties.

“At Lakeside, we’re continuously working to ensure our culture and premises delivers safe spaces for occupiers and their employees, including our current work towards WELL Health-Safety Rating.”

From tailored initiatives for the different needs of a business and its employees to investing in and delivering environments that support mental health and wellbeing, there are numerous opportunities for employers in 2022 to help create and retain a happy and productive workforce.

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