Wed 30 Oct 2019

Is Poor Mental Health A Crisis Employers Can Cope With?

Both National Work Life Week and Mental Health Day took place in October.  The former aims to give employers and workers the opportunity to focus on wellbeing at work and the latter has an overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.

Both are high profile issues in the workplace with employers constantly being told they need to do more to support their employees. 

In 2017, the UK government published its review of mental health and employers - Thriving at Work - in which a vision was set out that by 2027 employees in all types of employment would have "good work" which contributed positively to their mental health.  But two years in and, based on numerous statistics, it would be easy to conclude that things are not heading in the right direction. 

Amongst the many reports that could be cited, the 2019 CIPD/Simply Health -  Health and Well-being at Work report highlighted an increase in stress-related absence and the 2019 ACAS poll Stress and anxiety at work: personal or cultural found 66% of employees have felt stressed and/or anxious about work in the last 12 months.  More recently research conducted by the Chartered Accountants' Benevolent Association found that 40% of workers are close to breaking point with the average employee losing out on five hours of sleep a week due to pressures from work with workers feeling stressed for almost a third of their entire day.  Can employers reasonably expect to do anything about this or are we just at the point of damage limitation?

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles faced by employers is persuading employees to engage with them on dealing with mental health issues.  Legally, under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, employees have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety but, in practice, certainly when it comes to mental health, this doesn't seem to be happening.  The message that it's "OK not to be OK" is definitely out there in wider society, but many employees are still too worried about the potential ramifications on their career to approach their employer to ask for support, irrespective of how wide open the employer's door is.  The ACAS poll highlights that less than half of employees would talk to their manager in the event of being stressed. It also found that the majority of employees think it is a manager's role to recognise stress and anxiety in the workplace but only 8% of employees felt their employer was "very good" at preventing stress and anxiety. This could be explained by the fact that, according to the CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work report, less than half of businesses provide training to their managers in supporting staff with mental ill health.

Whether, for this generation of workers at least, employers can actually do any more than damage limitation remains to be seen.  Where work itself is a cause it becomes easier to identify how that might be done.  The CIPD report found that heavy workloads remain the major cause of workplace stress, although in 2019 an increased proportion blamed management style.  These are both factors within the control of employers.  Businesses who take a continuous improvement approach to well-being programmes and who have line managers who are engaged with the process are more likely to report that their efforts to tackle stress are effective.  Appropriate training of managers is increasingly becoming a key tool for businesses.

For as long as employees are wary of raising mental health issues in the workplace, employers will have to take this issue by the scruff of the neck and pro-actively address it.  Even if this does mean only damage limitation initially, in the mid to long term it raises the possibility of reducing the detrimental impact of workplace issues on mental health.  So hopefully, the next generation coming into the workplace will be more aware of the risks and will have more support available - let's remain optimistic.

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