As I write this, it’s the first day of Mental Health Awareness Week, which happens every year, traditionally during the second week in May.
Whilst this initiative covers all aspects of mental health, it’s the perfect time to take stock and think about what we, as business owners and employers, can do in our workplaces to prevent causing mental illnesses in the first place, or making existing issues any worse.
To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, the Mental Health Foundation have published an excellent ‘state of the nation’ report, entitled ‘Surviving or Thriving? The State of the UK’s Mental Health’.
In their report, some disturbing findings were made, the extent of which might surprise you. The main ones are summarised here, but I’d recommend reading the full report to gain a broader picture, especially if you’re planning any form of stress management campaign in your organisation:
- A staggering 87% of people reported having sub-optimal mental health. If the success of a nation can be measured on the health and wellbeing of its people, we still have a long road to travel
- Improvements in physical health over the last decade have far outpaced improvements in mental health. The collective state of mental health in the UK is still deteriorating
- People over 55 experience better mental health than the average (partly because they are generally better at taking positive steps to help themselves)
- More than 40% of people say they have experienced depression and over 25% have experienced panic attacks
- Financial status matters – nearly 75% of those in the lowest income bracket have experienced mental health problems, compared to 60% in the highest
- Employment status matters too – 85% of those out of work have experienced a mental health problem, compared to 66% of those in work and 50% of those retired
- Women, young adults (18-34), those living alone or those living in large households are above average risk for experiencing a mental health problem
In this article, I’m going to focus specifically on occupational stress because it’s fast becoming one of the highest reasons for workplace mental illness and therefore sickness absence too. Stress can also lead to secondary illnesses such as depression, anxiety and debilitating physical symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome or stomach ulcers.
There’s no doubt that the pressure on organisations, bosses and employees is increasing. As communication becomes more rapid, technology grows and competition increases, organisations are required to respond faster and become more lean in order to stay afloat. The pace of change is relentless and many of us are struggling to keep up.
Stress isn’t to be confused with pressure, which almost all of us are exposed to at some point during the working week – many people say they are ‘stressed’, when they are probably just under some pressure. Pressure can in fact be a strong motivator and healthy pressure is therefore a good thing – it helps us grow and achieve.
Stress is an adverse reaction to pressure – it’s essentially an inability to cope in a healthy way with the pressure that we’re put under. Stress can have a wide range of physical and mental side effects from mild through to seriously debilitating. Stress is also affects individuals very differently – equal pressures can lead to ‘comfortable coping’ or and adverse stress reaction depending on who is exposed to it.
Proactive Management Approaches
The Health and Safety Executive have published a useful set of Stress Management Standards, which are a great start point if you have not done anything to review and tackle stress in your organisation yet.
The Management Standards focus on the following six areas:
- Demands – covers areas such as workload, work patterns and the work environment itself
- Control – how much say the person has in the way that they do their work
- Support – how much encouragement and resources are provided by the organisation, management and colleagues
- Relationships – how far is positive working promoted (to avoid conflict or deal with unacceptable behaviour)
- Role – how well people understand their role within the organisation; whether the organisation makes sure people do not have conflicting roles
- Change – how well organisational change of all magnitudes is managed and communicated throughout the organisation
Carry out an initial stress risk assessment within your organisation, making an honest appraisal of how well you manage stress within each of the six Standard areas. Then use your assessment to develop an improvement plan, prioritising the weakest areas first. Make sure you involve your employees and managers in the entire process – they will know where the pinch points are. Honest dialogue at this stage will pay dividends throughout.
Another useful (but possibly cynical) benefit of this approach is that HSE Inspectors are likely to refer to these Standards if they call on you at your workplace, so aside from the obvious benefits to employees and management alike, following the Standards and having a written plan based on them also decreases the risk of enforcement action and prosecution.
Reactive Management Approaches
Whilst prevention is obviously the best approach, it’s also important for employers to be able to identify signs of potential stress among their teams. Fast intervention is important and, if carried out properly, will stop things from getting any worse.
When on the look out for potential signs of stress, remember that everyone is different – you are typically looking for unusual changes rather than existing engrained habits. Here are some of the signs that an employer may notice (summarised from guidance published by the International Stress Management Association):
- Inability to concentrate or make simple decisions
- Memory lapses or becoming vague and easily distracted
- Less intuitive and creative than normal
- Visible signs of worry, depression or anxiety
- Negative thinking
- Tearful or irritable behaviour
- Mood swings, defensive behaviour or especially sensitive to criticism
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of confidence or general self esteem
- Muscle tension or grinding teeth
- Frequent absence (e.g. from bugs, infections, constipation, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome)
- Allergies, rashes or skin irritations
- Weight loss or gain
- Dizziness or palpitations
- Panic attacks or nausea
- Physical tiredness
- Prone to recklessness, accidents or forgetfulness
- Becoming a workaholic
- Poor time management and/or poor standards of work
- Self neglect or change in appearance
- Social withdrawal in the workplace
- Relationship problems with colleagues
- Aggressive, frustrated or angry outbursts
- Nervous behaviours
- Uncharacteristic lying
Holding a conversation with an employee on any these issues is never easy, but it is vital. One of the best ways to begin healing a mental health issue is to talk about it. Many issues can be fixed by simple workplace changes (physical or organisational), but if they can’t, seek help for your employee from an external impartial source such as a qualified counsellor (look for a qualified member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy).
If employers are to make significant improvements in stress management, the focus needs to shift rapidly away from a reactive ‘only fix it when it’s broken’ approach and towards a proactive ‘let’s value and protect our teams, and make sure they never become ill’ approach. This strategy has shown positive results for many other areas of workplace health such as the prevention of lung diseases or musculoskeletal illnesses. The workplace approach to mental health should be treated no differently.
Finally, another key question is also how we can equip those entering the world of work for the first time to deal with pressure in a healthier way. Sadly, employers are unlikely to make sweeping changes across the board to address this, so new employees are going to have to find ways to become more resilient.
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner