Considering how much of our lives we spend at work, it is unsurprising that our jobs can have a significant impact on our mental health. Employment can help promote good mental and emotional wellbeing, but can also act as a trigger for mental distress. Whether you have an existing mental health issue or not, long hours, sustained pressure, poor management and difficult working relationships can all take their toll on mental health. Three in ten employees will have a mental health problem in any given year, yet fewer than one in ten employers have a mental health policy to help staff sustain good mental health.
We all need a bit of pressure at work to keep us motivated, but when pressure is extreme and unrelieved, employees can become frustrated and exhausted, and develop symptoms of stress and depression. Employers must take responsibility for tackling the causes of stress.
Employers should discourage people from working excessive hours, and where an employee is experiencing stress or any other mental health issue, consider making flexible working available to them. On a day to day level, staff need to know what is expected of them and have clearly defined responsibilities. Employers should also consider offering on-site wellbeing support, such as a counselling service, or invest in an off-site employee assistance programme. Relationships with line managers can make all the difference, and a supportive relationship, with enough supervision and help managing workload, can support people with mental distress.
There is widespread misunderstanding about mental health problems – what they are and how many people get them – and employers are no exception. Many employers would claim there is no one in their workforce who has a mental health problem, even though statistically speaking one in four employees may well have mental distress. The lack of awareness amongst employers can be seen as part of a vicious circle. People with mental health problems don’t want to disclose this to their employers for fear there might be repercussions. This acts as a barrier to seeking support and requesting workplace adjustments. As a result, employers can be reluctant to believe a mental health problem might be an issue in their workplace
Employers are often concerned that acknowledging mental health problems in their workforce will lead to additional expense. However, this is not necessarily the case – by putting relatively inexpensive preventative measures in place an employer can avoid hefty costs down the line due to sickness absence.
The impact of the economic downturn on mental wellbeing is very worrying. Job insecurity, worries about mortgage repayments or spiralling debts may all be impacting on people’s mental health. Evidence shows that mental distress tends to rise during a recession.
There is a concern that people who may be experiencing problems at work will be even more reluctant to raise workplace issues or mental health conditions because they are in fear of jeopardising their job, during a period of economic uncertainty for business. Employers must do all that they can to address these fears.
The benefits of addressing mental health in the workplace are demonstrated by BT and Rolls Royce – two companies who have shown a commitment to improving well-being for their employees. In 2006, BT launched the ‘Positive Mentality’ campaign to raise awareness of mental health and explain what BT employees can do to build positive changes in their lives. BT provided practical guidance to its 108,000 employees worldwide on how to improve their mental health at work and at home.
BT hoped that by encouraging staff to adopt small changes in lifestyle and use proven techniques for increasing their resilience they would cope better with the pressures of modern living and work more creatively and productively. BT has seen a 30 per cent reduction in mental health sickness absence since they started implementing these initiatives. Mind would support BT’s vision, that if you invest in employees and help them to maintain their mental wellbeing, perhaps in times of difficulty, employees will repay you with loyalty.
Rolls-Royce places a high priority on managing stress and mental health in the workplace. Having identified that stress and minor mental ill health accounted for 12 per cent of medically certified absence and 15 per cent of days lost from Rolls-Royce each year, Rolls-Royce adopted a number of initiatives recommended by the HSE report ‘Beacons of excellence in stress prevention’ in 2003.
Rolls-Royce circulated guidance to every line manager about mental health, to ensure management commitment to drive change. The organisation developed an online stress questionnaire to provide managers with a risk assessment approach to managing workplace pressure, A stress prevention strategy was drafted and interventions to support individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole were implemented across the business.
British men work some of the longest hours in Europe. Recent polling for Mind’s men’s mental health campaign ‘Get it off your chest’, found that in comparison to women, men are given less support from their line managers, have higher work demands and are more likely to report that their employer has undertaken no recent initiative to reduce stress in the workplace. It’s important that employers consider gender bias and men’s mental health needs when assessing whether they are doing enough to promote a mentally healthy workplace.
Good mental health at work is a key issue for Mind. In 2005 we published a report on stress and mental health in the workplace, which outlined recommendations for employers. These included the introduction of official mental health in the workplace, flexible hours and working from home policies, stress coaching, on the job support, provision of quiet rooms, exercise provision, training programmes and social activities. We have produced additional resources and toolkits both for individuals and employers on employment issues that are available on the Mind website (www.mind.org.uk). Mind can also work with organisations on an individual basis to develop mentally healthy workplaces through assessments, support and advice.
For more information please contact Emma Mamo, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer via [email protected]
1 Seymour, L. et al. 2005, Workplace interventions for people with common mental health problems: Evidence review and recommendations, British Occupational Health Research Foundation
2 Anon 2009, Beyond Stress: A Guide to Mental Health & Workplace Wellbeing, Great Place to Work Institute UK and Employers’ Forum on Disability