Workplace mental health is arguably the most discussed topic in health and safety right now – and with good reason.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have released their statistics on workplace safety for 2019. They contain some shocking figures on work-related stress, depression and anxiety. 602,000 of us suffered from them (new or long-standing cases) in 2018/19 and 54% of working days lost due to ill-health are attributed to them.
Workers' mental health is an issue none of us can afford to ignore.
The Basics of Workplace Mental Health
First things first: what do we mean when we say "workplace mental health"?
"Mental health" and "mental illness" are often used as interchangeable terms but this isn't technically correct. We all have mental health – and like our physical health, it will fluctuate throughout our lives. Mental illnesses are common but if people are properly supported, they can be successfully managed.
We spend a lot of our waking hours at work, so it stands to reason that work can often have a profound effect on our mental health. When we feel fulfilled, appreciated and in control of our work, that optimism can spill over into the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: if we're under unreasonable work stress, suffer from bullying or otherwise feel undervalued, that can affect us at home too. It can cause us to withdraw socially, take it out on our loved ones or misuse alcohol.
Sadly, 300,000 people suffering from mental illnesses lose their jobs each year. As well as the adverse career and financial impacts this may have on them, their employers lose out: they take their skills, experience and expertise elsewhere. With better understanding and management of mental health and wellness in the workplace, many of these job losses could be avoided.
Where to Start
For employers, the physical safety side of the "health and safety" equation has traditionally received most – or all – of their attention. Addressing employee mental health can seem a confusing and difficult task. Many employers fear "overstepping", as everyone's mental health is affected by their personal lives as well as their jobs.
Sometimes reaching out to someone and giving them a safe space to discuss their mental health can make a huge difference. When people feel their workplace is supportive, they are more likely to stay in the role. They use less energy trying to hide their condition out of fear for their jobs. Senior people sharing their own stories in this area can often help to set the tone, though, of course, it should be entirely voluntary for every individual.
Creating a Mentally Healthy Culture
We've all heard of workplace wellbeing initiatives. Though well-meaning, many of these focus on surface-level interventions like free fruit or free yoga classes. These can be exceptionally beneficial for some and are to be welcomed – but they're not the whole story.
Creating a workplace that complements employees' mental health rather than damaging it requires a genuine effort to meet people's needs. Flexible working can help people who need work-life balance; for some, being able to drop off their children at school in the morning can have a huge effect on their mood for the rest of the day. Financial problems are a major cause of workplace stress and stress-related illness in general, so employers that ensure their staff are paid fairly are making an investment in their wellbeing.
One of the major components to a cultural shift is communication. People need to feel safe bringing up mental health concerns or related issues, such as feeling overloaded with work. Ideally, they should speak to their line managers in the first instance, but it's best to provide a neutral alternative for people who don't feel comfortable doing this.
Recognising the Signs
When it comes to personal stress, identifying stress in a team or managing an employee with stress, there's no substitute for quality training.
It's beneficial for people to learn to recognise the signs of stress, both in themselves and others. People respond to undue stress in different ways, but the following symptoms could be clear signs:
- Change in mood – for example, seeming low, anxious or irritable
- Difficulties concentrating
- Increased negativity in attitude
- Feelings of emotional "distance" from work and other activities
- Getting physically ill more often
There is no quick fix to the epidemic of workplace ill-health in all workplaces and industries. Problems are so widespread that it's statistically likely that at least one colleague of everyone reading this blog will be struggling with a diagnosable mental health issue.
Despite the scale of the problem, there are positives. The discussion around mental health is now more open than ever before and more and more people are sharing their stories to help others.