Mentally healthy work

Earlier this year, The Times reported on a study that highlighted the lack of empathy from some employers towards staff with mental health problems (Bosses lack concern for mentally ill staff, 31 March 2015). The article stated that “most bosses do not believe that suffering from stress, depression or anxiety is a serious enough reason for staff to take time off work”. Such a lack of empathy is not just a failure of compassion but also demonstrates a lack of good business sense. Workplaces that foster good mental health and support employees who experience mental health problems are better places to work, and more successful in their activities. The failure to provide adequate support can lead to increased absenteeism and presenteeism. With the cost to business, and more broadly society, high: the OECD estimates that we lose around 13.5 million working days a year due to stress, depression or anxiety.

Good employers are already ahead of the curve promoting positive mental health, understanding and preventing issues that cause stress and mental health problems and supporting employees who develop mental health problems. This isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s about protecting the bottom line.

Many companies now have health and wellbeing officers, and we have been working with some well-known British high street brands in both the retail and service delivery industries to promote better mental health amongst their staff—raising awareness through films of people with lived experience talking about mental health, and promoting mindfulness training via our online mindfulness course bemindful.co.uk

It is critical that appropriate support and services are provided for people who develop serious mental health problems, but much of the focus has to be on bringing down the need for these services in the first place. With people many employees, struggling to switch off after work, or lying awake at night worrying about work, work places need not be a prime cause of mental health problems but rather positioned in the front line on prevention.  

So what can be done?

The World Health Organisation came up with an action plan on Mental Health for Europe suggesting ‘health workplaces (come about) by introducing measures such as exercise, changes to work patterns, sensible hours and health management styles’ as well as the inclusion of mental health in programmes dealing with occupational health and safety. (WHO 2005).

But of course this is not new. Work is, and always has been, critical to mental health and wellbeing.

As far back as 1930s Social Psychologist Marienthal Jahoda demonstrated that work is critical to wellness and identity and this basic premise remains true today. Work and employment can create positive identities, provide social networks, and a secure income. Equally unemployment and poor work can reinforce social exclusion, create stress and illness, lead to poor sense of control and coherence, and lead to in-work poverty. More broadly in terms of social justice work and employment is the primary way in which wealth is (re)distributed within society.

So one priority is to maximize employment rates for those who wish to work, to reduce exclusion and discrimination, and to support progressive policies that maximize access to ‘good work’. This goes hand in hand with the need to maximize employment conditions, policies and practices for wellbeing. Progressive policies enhance organizational productivity and competitiveness – and increasingly enables you to attract great candidates. But it also acts as a prevention approach; and prevention is at the heart of The Mental Health Foundations work.

The Foundation team have led a number of strategic reviews of this field and one example is ‘work in tune with life’ where we partnered with the NHS and the European Network for Workplace Health Promotion to provide mental health guides for employers and employees. See: www.enwhp.org/enwhp-initiatives/current-initiative-work-in-tune-with-life/mental-health-at-the-workplace.html

Mentally healthy practice in the workplace for all staff includes many elements that are about what we do but also the culture within which we work. So what is vital are issues such as: social support; meaningful work; and control over work. And, whilst we sometimes can’t make massive changes to work tasks, there are positive things that we can do, for example a top 10 tips might include:

1.    Modifying workloads and regular reviews of job content and expectations

2.    Supportive management who involve all staff in decision-making

3.    Relaxation and mindfulness

4.    Activity programmes including group and social activities

5.    Flexible working hours

6.    Pleasant working conditions and environment

7.    Job security, unionisation and fair pay

8.    Stress management policies and procedures

9.    Whole organisation mental health awareness training

10. Good internal communication

One further concern are the low rates of employment for people with severe and enduring mental health problems, which can be as low as 20% compared with a rate of around 52% for disabled people in general and 72% for the population as a whole.  This is despite the fact that many people can and do lead successful careers following serious mental ill-health and most people out of work with mental health problems want to work.  For many people their work is a source of confidence and self-belief. We also know that if someone has time off work for a mental health problem then as each day passes without support the chances of successful returns to work become increasingly difficult.

But it needn’t be this way. Practically if you have a workplace that is supportive for all staff then it is the first step; things like providing access to counselling and occupational health, and monitoring and proactively minimising stress. At an organisationsl level we recommend an official mental health policy supported by senior staff developed with all staff; a mental health champion (or champions); and regular mental health awareness training for staff. Many good mental health courses for managers are also now available. And if an employee is struggling with their mental health then don’t discriminate or judge but offer support; be prepared to make reasonable adjustments; and follow up with that person as you would with any other health condition.