While certain level of stress in our lives is important just to function, it was Reverend WJ Kennedy who, in 1856, as the Inspector of Schools for Lancashire and the Isle of Man, identified that “if you want any business done for you, you should ask a busy man”.
That may be true, but the problem for some is that the relationship between busyness and stress is too incestuous. Too much stress and our human frailties are thrown into sharp relief, too little and we relax.
So, what is the right level of stress and what can employer and employee alike do to reduce the threat to an individual’s wellbeing?
According to Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer at the Stress Management Society, a non-profit organisation that offers help and advice on managing stress, the matter of poor mental health has risen toward the top of many an agenda. He points to data compiled in October 2018 by the HSE which found that in 2017/2018 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health. “Worryingly,” he says, “the problem has grown more acute over the past 10 years to the point that 15.4 million days were lost in 2017/2018 compared to just over 13 million in 2007/2008.”
Andrew Rayment, a partner at Walker Morris LLP, agrees with Shah’s view. He says that there is an important conversation to be had about mental health in the workplace as “each year workplace mental health issues cost the UK economy almost £35bn.” He cites an open letter written in November 2018 to the government from the leaders of more than 50 of the UK’s largest employers. They urged amendments to health and safety legislation “so that mental health at work is valued in the same way as physical health. The signatories called on the government to ensure that employers are required to make provision for mental as well as physical first aid.”
But just as those employers have pressured the government, Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind, a mental health charity, says that over 1000 organisations have signed up to the Time to Change organisational pledge – “and this year more than 100 employers from various sectors take part in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index, a benchmark of best policy and practice.”
She adds that for some the pressure is too much. She refers to a government-commissioned review, Thriving at Work, which in 2017 “revealed that 300,000 people experiencing mental health problems lose their jobs each year.” She does add that “it’s hard to tell whether poor mental health in the workplace is on the rise, employers are better capturing it, or perhaps staff are being more open about mental health and stress at work.”
More statistics are hard to avoid. HSE figures see the causes as primarily workload (44%), lack of support (14%), violence, threats or bullying (13%), changes at work (8%), and other (21%). This last category as a ‘catch-all’ is quite large and Shah thinks it relates to a combination of technological and financial pressures.
Looking at the former, he says that “this is partly down to the ‘always on call’ culture that has become the new normal in many workplaces and beyond,” a problem made worse by remote access with the concomitant obligation to be available on demand. Not unsurprisingly, a 2016 survey by Rescue Remedy found that the average Briton now spends staggering 14 hours and 54 minutes a day attached to their mobile phone, laptop or computer.
It’s of note that in January 2017 the French gained a new ‘right to disconnect’ where companies with more than 50 workers are obliged to draw up a charter of good conduct that sets out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails.
Of financial pressures, the January 2019 Close Brothers Index indicated that 94% of UK employees suffer from money worries, with more than 77% saying that money worries affected them at work.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that change is coming. “We are undoubtedly seeing a shift in attitude towards mental health that is both societal and governmental,” says Rayment. He recalls a move from the government, in October 2018, where it appointed a suicide prevention minister in recognition of the fact that the number of people taking their own life had reached unacceptable levels (the Samaritans recorded 5821 suicides in the UK in 2017).
Mamo throws more to the mix. She says that when it comes to workplaces, every organisation has its own unique challenges and pressures: “There are lots of factors associated with stress and poor wellbeing, such as poorly defined roles and responsibilities, poor relationships with managers and colleagues, excessive workload, unrealistic targets or deadlines and long working hours.” She says a solution is to deal with workplace cultures so that staff can make their feelings known.
It’s critical to understand that employers have, as Rayment explains, a legal duty of care to their staff to provide a safe place of work and that includes ensuring mental health as well as physical health. “We are all familiar with health and safety measures to prevent staff from slipping or tripping at work, falling from heights or being injured by equipment or substances. The same considerations apply to ensure that staff are not subjected to unacceptable levels of stress at work.”
The statistics earlier point out the size of the mental health problem which needs fixing. Yes, there may be costs involved in ensuring that staff are not subjected to undue stress (perhaps by having to employ others or reduce productivity targets) but, in the long run, Rayment suggests that “looking after employees’ mental health can save money and give a company a competitive edge as a good employer.”
Mamo sees the same: “Analysis by Deloitte as part of the Thriving at Work employment review found that employers should see a return on investment of between £1.50 and £9 for every £1 invested.”
And to drive the point home, the HSE recently updated its first aid guidance for employers to emphasise the benefits of training staff to recognise whether colleagues are suffering from poor mental health.
The guidance states: “…you might decide that it will be beneficial to have personnel trained to identify and understand symptoms and able to support someone who might be experiencing a mental health issue… you should consider ways to manage mental ill health in your workplace which are appropriate for your business…” The guidance also notes the benefits of first aid training courses that cover mental health which teaches delegates how to recognise warning signs of mental ill health.
Advice for employees unable to cope
As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. For this reason, Shah says that “it is really important that they [employees] do not struggle alone; we know that some employees will not want to speak about this at work.” In this situation the Stress Society recommends staff have (free) access to confidential services - Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP)- if provided by the employer.
But Mamo notes that while EAPs can be useful, “the downside is that because they are confidential, an employer won’t necessarily be aware that someone is struggling and therefore be able to provide additional support.”
For those wishing to make their concerns known to their employer, Shah’s advice is for worried staff to speak to their line manager, but beforehand, they should prepare for the conversation by writing a list – “this way they will be sure that everything they want to discuss is covered and that they won’t lose their train of thought as the conversation progresses.”
Mamo endorses the view that employees suffering should be taking time off work, just as someone would for physical health problems. “Smart employers,” she says, “should keep lines of communication open while someone’s off and discuss things like ‘phased returns’ – gradually coming back to work – if needed.”
Other options include seeking advice from Acas, Mind’s Legal Line, the Stress Society, or a union representative.
As we’ve seen, the matter of stress and employee wellbeing is one that is serious, and one that cannot be ignored.
The legal perspective, as established by a number of court cases, is that if an employer becomes aware that an employee is suffering from mental health issues in the workplace it must consider how best to address the situation.
On this Rayment says employers should arrange a meeting with the employee to establish causes and what might alleviate the problem. “In some cases,” he adds, “it may be necessary to refer the individual to an occupational health advisor to obtain a medical opinion and recommendations. The key is to keep talking to the employee and keep an open mind.”
He also says to consider that “if the employee’s mental health condition has a significant adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal daily activities then it might classify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. This would impose additional legal obligations on the employer, for example, a duty to consider making reasonable adjustments to the employee’s working arrangements to alleviate the problem.”
Employers ought to take note: claims for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 can be costly and have reputational consequences. Back in 1995, in Walker v Northumberland County Council, a worker settled out of court for £175,000 after a senior social worker who suffered two nervous breakdowns sought compensation for work-related stress.
From his position, Shah takes a more pragmatic approach. While he agrees with Rayment that mental health must be taken seriously, employers should be asking employees for opinions. “People often feel stress when they are powerless over their job content. So, if change is required, consult those involved so they can have a say in work-related decisions.” Allied to this, Shah recommends keeping employees in the picture about changes to their role and workload, including targets – “focus on what an employee can do, rather than what they can’t do”.
It’s important to remember that healthy workplaces benefit the entire workforce, whether they have a mental health problem or not. Sensible employers, says Mamo, put in place ‘Wellness Action Plans’ (which are available free from Mind’s website). “These are useful tools to help start conversations about mental health between managers and their direct reports; they help identify unique triggers.”
Mind, with support from The Royal Foundation, Heads Together and 11 other organisations has a free Mental Health at Work ‘gateway’. This portal brings together information, advice, resources and training for employees and employers to promote good mental health at work. There is plenty of material on both the Mind and Stress Society websites.
Ultimately, ignoring mental health issues in the workplace only serves to make them worse. By not addressing issues employers may see a decrease in productivity, output and an increase in absenteeism or even presenteesim. In some instances, it may even result in loss of life.
But just as employers cannot sweep mental health under the carpet, it is vital that employees do not suffer in silence or blame themselves for failing to cope. Not dealing with mental health issues won’t make it go away, in fact it is likely to get worse.
So, is taking care of mental wellbeing, whether by managing stress, depression or any other condition, as important as addressing and treating physical illness? The answer, backed by Paul Keenan, the chief executive of Bauer Media UK & European Radio, is plainly, yes: “The impact of neglecting mental ill health in the workplace is two-fold: both an economic and human cost which we have the opportunity to alleviate. By investing in the physical and mental health of our people we will not only unlock human potential in the workplace but reduce astronomical costs to the economy.”
Andy Franks’ experience
Back in September last year, Andy Franks, managing partner of BrightSkyClearMind, a change management agency, posted a blog on Linkedin entitled ‘Anxiety, stress, workplace burn out and a plane crash!’ In the blog he noted how, despite having a well-paid job, family and friends, that he wished the aircraft he was on would crash because as he put it, “I hated my job, I hated it with a vengeance. So much so, that the thought of landing, heading home, showering and then heading into the office led me to contemplate the unthinkable.”
That’s quite a statement.
Franks can see that workplace cultures have changed significantly in recent years – especially when he receives “emails detailing a redundancy, someone having to reapply for their job, tales of cyber/workplace bullying or worse, the loss of someone who found the challenge of life and work too hard.”
The problem for him is that many corporate cultures set out with good intentions but often end up acting as enablers for bad practices.
“Ironically,” he says, “I believe that the notional drive for a better work/life balance has in some cases been utilised by more unscrupulous managers to justify a push towards zero-hours contracts. The rationale behind these similar approaches has been, ‘yes, you can work when it suits you best’, translating as ‘when it suits us best’.”
There is no doubt in his mind that conversation has given way to technology and a black and white set of values: “The ‘you are either on board or down the road’ mindset can lead to poor decisions and more worryingly to increased anxiety, stress or even worse – workplace bullying.”
Worse, he thinks the toxic nature of workplace bullying is greatly enhanced by social media and email. He blames the deliberate CC-ing of an individual’s superiors when highlighting (perceived) problems, poor work, or communication breakdowns. He says: “This type of shaming can directly lead to a loss of confidence not only by the manager CC-d, but also by the individual who has been undermined.”
All of this is exacerbated, he says, because line managers and HR functions are simply not equipped to help when confronted with a staff member suffering from stress: “The perpetual challenges to improve the bottom-line, drive efficiencies and increase productivity while maintaining the ‘right profile’ can blur priorities.” He says that “this can leave individuals exposed and can create unnecessary tension. This in turn can lead to feelings of genuine anxiety and in some cases can lead to full-blown depression.”
His advice to those struggling? “Remember that you are not alone. You are not the first person to find the rigours of work hard to handle all the time and sadly you will not be the last.”
Adding to this he warns against ignoring how you feel or the temptation to hide behind excessive behaviour – drinking, bad eating or gambling.
He also says to look at what work aspects can be changed and what cannot. With the latter, he says “there is no need to worry because even if you do worry, you can’t change anything. However, with the things you can change, change them for the better and then there will be no need to worry.”
Lastly, he says “to share how you feel, don’t allow any potential sense of embarrassment prevent you from reaching out for personal or professional support. There is absolutely nothing weak about sharing how you truly feel – Quite the opposite in fact, sometimes it takes considerable strength to stand up to a major challenge. Be brave.”