Mental Health in the Workplace: World Mental Health Day 2023
For this year’s mental health day, the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) has put forward the idea of mental health as a universal human right. All too often, those with mental health and psychosocial disabilities experience disproportionate rates of poor physical health, reduced life expectancy and societal stigma, in and out of the workplace. Today, the WFMH is campaigning for mental health to be put squarely within the framework of human rights legislation and recast as a fundamental human right. To mark the occasion, we at HR:4UK are discussing the scale and scope of mental health on those in the world of work, and what employers can do to help those who are struggling.
What is Mental Health?
Positive mental health is defined as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their own community. It includes the emotional, psychological and social aspects of our mind which affect how we think, feel and act.
Adverse mental health can range from feeling ‘a bit down’ or having a ‘low mood’ to common disorders such as anxiety and depression or to more severe (but far less common) conditions such as phobic anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Anxiety may be caused by issues in the workplace such as workload, performance or conflict with colleagues. Anxiety is not just in the work place: outside factors such as relationships, family or debt problems can also cause and exacerbate the disorder.
Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life – that feeling of worry, fear, nervousness or unease. Spotting signs of anxiety may include increased absences from work; becoming emotional or over-reacting to what others may say; a feeling of negativity, dwelling on negative experiences and perhaps a change in behaviour such as lack of concentration and restlessness.
Meanwhile, for stress, whilst there is no universally-accepted medical definition, in broad terms, it can be defined as an ‘adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them’. The vast majority of staff benefit from a certain amount of pressure in the workplace, as it can keep them motivated and provide a sense of ambition and job satisfaction. However, a balance must always be struck. Once the tipping point is reached, and too much pressure placed on the individual, they can become quickly overwhelmed, leading to performance issues and other effects. It must be noted that stress itself is not an illness, but the psychological impact of it can lead to further mental health conditions.
The Impact of Mental Health in the Workplace
Stress, anxiety and mental health issues have become commonplace in the modern world, and the workplace is no exception. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) states that a staggering one in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives – a full quarter of the population1.
The costs of this epidemic are manifold. Poor mental health accounts for more than half of all work-related absence: over 51% of long-term sick leave is due to stress, depression or anxiety2. Meanwhile, the estimated costs to the wider UK economy are enormous, with some £117.9 billion (roughly 5% of the country’s GDP) lost every year according to a report by the London School of Economics and Mental Health Foundation3.
With such heavy costs associated with it, the importance of tackling mental health at work couldn’t be any clearer. Yet the issue persists, and the question remains: are employers doing enough to help those staff who are facing difficulties?
Workplace Wellbeing and the Burden of Work
One of the major contributing factors to this unaddressed problem of mental health is that there still persists a stigma attached to stress, workplace and work-related anxiety that few are willing to address. Many still seem to think that they will be seen as weak or unprofessional if they admit to their issues. Yet, the numbers tell a different story.
55% of workers in Britain feel that work is becoming more intense and demanding as the years go by, while 61% feel exhausted at the end of most working days4. In addition, one in five workers report feeling unable to manage the stress and pressure of their job5. Admitting to this stress, to the strains and tribulations of work, is no weakness, and it can affect anyone at any level of an organisation.
Managers and employers are no exception. Deloitte found that up to 64% of managers have considered quitting a job for one that would better support their wellbeing – almost two thirds6. At the same time, 70% of managers cite organisational barriers to supporting staff wellbeing, including company policy, a cluttered workload, an unsupportive workplace culture and more besides.
These statistics create a damning portrait of the current state of mental health in the workplace, and show that while certain strides have been made, there is still so much left to do. Small wonder, then, that the WFMH is calling for mental health to be considered a fundamental universal human right.
What Are the Causes of Poor Mental Health in the Workplace?
The HSE has identified six primary causes for work-related stress to be7:
- The demands of the job – Staff can become overloaded if they cannot cope with the amount of work or the type of work they are asked to do.
- Amount of control over work – Employees can feel disaffected and perform poorly if they have no say over how and when they work.
- Support from managers and colleagues – Levels of sickness absence can often rise if staff feel that they cannot talk to their managers about issues troubling them.
- Relationships at work – A failure to build relationships based on good behaviour and trust can lead to problems related to discipline, grievance and bullying in the long-term.
- How a role fits within an organisation – Many may feel anxious about their work and the organisation if they don’t know what is expected of them and/or understand how their work fits into the objectives of the organisation.
- Change and how it is managed – Organisational or workload changes need to be managed effectively, otherwise they can lead to uncertainty, insecurity and unnecessary stress.
Spotting the signs of mental health may not always be obvious, but the earlier a manager or employer becomes aware that a member of their team is experiencing mental health, the sooner steps can be taken to support the employee and to prevent it from developing into something more serious.
Of course, not everyone who experiences mental health issues will exhibit obvious signs. It is for this reason that regular meetings and talking to staff asking them how they are doing and creating an environment where staff feel safe to be able to have an open and honest conversation with their manager on how they are feeling.
Mental Health under the Equality Act 2010
Some forms of mental health may be classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if an individual has a ‘substantial and long term, adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. The act makes it unlawful for an employer to treat a disabled person less favourably for a reason related to their disability without a justifiable reason.
As such, there’s a real, legal penalty for mistreating staff who are suffering from adverse mental health, and it is incumbent upon the employer to act in a manner in accordance with the Act. This means that it is more pertinent than ever for business owners to help their employees: not just from the perspective of wanting a happy, healthy workforce, but to ensure that you remain on the right side of the law as well.
What Employers Can Do To Help Mental Health at Work
HR consultant at HR:4UK, Julie Spence, has the following advice on helping employers work towards this goal:
“Informal five-minute monthly meetings. You’d get the chance to sit down regularly with your staff in private ask them four simple questions:
- How are you?
- What’s going well?
- What’s not going well?
- What can we do to help?
Everyone can spare five minutes to do this and it’s a great way to build better relationships.”
Staff members are of course entitled to their privacy, but it may well be the case that problems at home have an impact on their mental health. This might include financial worries, marital difficulties or illness among family members, and often, it’s difficult to tell what’s going on beneath the surface without honest conversation. As Julie puts it, ““Employers can’t help if they don’t know what’s going on in the background. Accept too that you might not be the best person to speak to the employee – there may be someone else on the team they’d be happier to confide in.”
“If your employee does open up to you about what’s worrying them, show empathy and understanding. Create a caring culture in your workplace where you get to know things about people but not in an intrusive way. It may be, for example, that a staff member has a five‐year‐old girl who’s just started school. Next time you have a meeting with that employee, you could show an interest by asking how her daughter is getting on.”
In addition to the open mindset that Julie advocates, employers can also take the following steps to ensure that their workplace remains one in which employees can thrive. After all, only 10% of employees are currently seeking support for their mental health, a figure which can – and should – be greatly improved upon.
Methods of Improving Mental Health
- Manage staff experiencing mental health by having mental health first-aiders who can spot the signs and know how to talk to and support individuals in their recovery
- Craft and implement a robust mental health policy which takes into account the particular sensitivities of staff
- Ensure that people’s workloads are reasonable
- Make sure that employees take regular breaks during the day
- Encourage employees to use their business’ wellbeing benefits
- Urge employees to use their paid time off/annual leave
- Offer or assist with counselling and support where applicable
- Consider implementing a ‘buddy’ or mentorship system so that individuals always feel as though they have someone to talk to
- Be an example to others: take the above steps as an employer so that staff feel comfortable doing so in return
By taking these steps, you can help your organisation become a better one for people suffering with mental health difficulties and, as a result, reap the benefits of decreased staff turnover, improved morale and a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.
Mental health is a complex issue which requires a deft hand at all times. The above tips are far from exhaustive, and it’s always important to ensure that individuals are treated on a case-by-case basis. At HR:4UK, we agree that mental health should be a universal human right, but it takes care, attention and knowledge in order to facilitate it.
Our extensive experience and expertise allows us to do just that. If you are concerned about employees mental health in your place of work, or would be interested to find out about how we can help you today, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our dedicated, friendly team of experts today on 01455 444 222 or email [email protected] and we can help guide you and your business to a brighter future.
1. CIPD. (June 27th 2023). Mental Health Factsheet.https://www.cipd.org/uk/knowledge/factsheets/mental-health-factsheet/
2. Health and Safety Executive (HSE). (March 2022). Work-related Stress, Anxiety or Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2022. https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
3. London School of Economics. (March 3rd 2022). Mental Health Problems Cost UK Economy at Least £118 Billion a Year – New Research. https://www.lse.ac.uk/News/Latest-news-from-LSE/2022/c-Mar-22/Mental-health-problems-cost-UK-economy-at-least-118-billion-a-year-new-research
4. Trade Union Congress (TUC). (July 2023). Work Intensification.https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/2023-07/WorkIntensificationrReportJuly2023.pdf
5. Mental Health UK. (March 2021). Burnout. https://mentalhealth-uk.org/burnout/
6. Deloitte. (June 20th 2023). As Workforce Wellbeing Dips, Leaders Ask: What Will it Take to Move The Needle? https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/insights/topics/talent/workplace-well-being-research.html
7. HSE. (2023). Work-Related Stress and How to Manage It. https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/causes.htm
Champion Health. (2023). The Workplace Health Report: 2023.https://championhealth.co.uk/insights/guides/workplace-health-report/
James is our resident wordsmith and has many years of experience in writing about a huge variety of topics from HR to Occupational Health and beyond. He has been published in numerous magazines and news outlets, and especially enjoys researching and analysing the current trends in the modern business world.