A Mental Health Crisis In The Workplace

Recently, I read two articles. One reported that 2,000 prison officers had to take time off in 2019 due to stress, depression and anxiety [People Management Jan 2020], while the other discussed the effects of the high workload doctors and teachers are facing every day.  The findings were that nearly one third of doctors may be burnt out together with the amount of teachers reporting mental health problems has increased fivefold since the 1990’s. [inews Jan 2020]

What is worrying is that we see these statistics, we read the articles and we say that we understand the issue. However, still not enough is being done about it. 

Although mental health is often thought to be an invisible problem, it cannot be met with an invisible solution. Rachel Suff, senior Policy Adviser Employment Relations at the CIPD says that ‘there has been important progress on building more mentally healthy organisations, but we need more proactive interventions that help prevent poor mental health in the first place,”

In 2017, research was published from Deloitte which found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year, with presenteeism taking a bigger toll than absences. Presenteeism is defined as putting aside both mental and physical health problems to attend work, whether they are fit to attend or not and of course this results in productivity loss.

The research further stated that the cost associated with presenteeism was four times the costs associated with absences due to mental health.

Pressure from targets and competing workplace priorities was the most significant cause of poor mental health at work in this survey. Unlike absenteeism,  presenteeism isn’t always apparent. 

This research is demonstrating the costs to employers and organisations if action is not taken. Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind says that “smart, forward-thinking employers are investing in staff wellbeing…and those who do, tend to save money in the long run.”

Despite the research being carried out 3 years ago, it is very bit as relevant today as it was then.

How To Take Action

We know that managers are all too frequently promoted into their positions because of their technical expertise and not necessarily because of their people management skills. 

In fact, a health and wellbeing at work survey from CIPD in 2019 found that only 50% of organisations trained line managers to manage stress. Moreover, just 37% were trained to spot the warning signs of presenteeism, and 40% to support employees with mental ill health.

Firms are being encouraged to train managers to gain the skills required to enable them to have sensitive conversations with workers and help them access effective support. This is the role of senior leaders as well as HR.

The majority of respondents to this survey cited heavy workloads (62 per cent) were to blame for their stress – a problem they frequently attributed to managers – while 43 per cent said that the style of management was a direct cause of stress.

I am certainly not blaming managers but I think it is important to recognise that a gap exists between the training provided by businesses and the expectations placed on managers – most of whom aren’t equipped to deal with such situations as they have not received sufficient people management skills.

Managers play such an important role in the lives of their employees so the lack of investment, training and ongoing support for managers in providing support for health and wellbeing at work should really be questioned. 

Employees need to know what the policies are and have the confidence to ask for help if and when they’re ill, while managers need to know how to make a reasonable adjustment for somebody who needs it. 

Some employers and organisations are great at sign posting employees to the appropriate places once they know their mental health is deteriorating, but the point is that they ought to be able to begin dealing with these issues before they get to such a place. It is all well and good having a 24/7 instant access counselling service on the premises, but if nothing is being done to get to the root of the causes of stress in the workplace, it does not solve the problem, it merely tends to its effects. The causes of stress in your workplace are what needs to be highlighted and action taken.. 

How Can You Do This?

Do an audit or a survey to fully appreciate the state of employees mental health and wellbeing in your organisation. Simply ask your employees how they feel to come to work, what their greatest challenges are and what they think could be improved. It can be as simple as that.

Then you can put in place the right kind of measures to not only support people when they are ill but to try and prevent these risks from happening entirely.

The article that reported the high number of absences of prison officers stated that mental health needs to be treated as a boardroom issue on a par with physical health and I couldn’t agree more.

Organisations should be incorporating workshops, programmes and boardroom briefings to educate managers and staff about the importance of recognising mental ill-health at work and encouraging the conversation that needs to take place before employees can receive the support they deserve. 

This not only benefits the employees suffering with mental health problems, but ultimately benefits the organisation and the manager as employees are able to be more productive and effective in their roles.

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