Workplace mental health: from bit player to the red carpet?

workplace mental health
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Acas Senior Policy Advisor Adrian Wakeling explores the increasing awareness of mental health in the workplace.

It has become increasingly apparent that mental health is becoming a bigger player in the story of our working lives. After decades in a purely non-speaking part – one of those characters who move their lips in the background and form part of the ‘rent a crowd’ – workplace mental health is finally being given the chance to be heard and influence the plot.

Of course, many of the lines we hear have become a little over-familiar and well-rehearsed – for example, one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives; the longer you are off work with mental illness, the less likely it is you will return; and, as the World Economic Forum estimated, mental health disorders could cost the global economy up to $16tn between 2010 and 2030 if a collective failure to respond is not addressed.

Has COVID-19 changed the way we view mental health? And is it time that the story of all our working lives was told largely through the lens of employee health and wellbeing?

Survey syndrome

Almost every week a new survey or forecast comes out, reporting on how well we are coping with the stress of the pandemic. But the narratives do vary. Take your pick from:

  • ‘Mental health services face a tsunami of cases following the COVID-19 lockdown.’ (Royal College of Psychiatrists);
  • 19.2% of adults in Great Britain are likely to be experiencing some form of depression (the pre-pandemic figure was 9.7%), according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS);
  • Most people (64%) say they are coping well with the stress of the pandemic (Mental Health Foundation); and
  • Work-related mental health concerns have increased only slightly over the last year – from 39% in 2019 to 41% in 2020 – and many think their colleagues (76%) and managers (69%) are considerate of their mental wellbeing (BITC report).

Statistics do tell a story – and most charities and stakeholders believe that the COVID-19 health crisis, along with the economic recession, is obscuring the ongoing damage being inflicted on the mental health of countless individuals, with women and the young reported to be particularly at risk. But if you are someone with an existing mental health condition that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, or have suffered symptoms for the first time in recent months, it is not the numbers that matter so much as the feelings of anxiety and despair.

As health experts are only too aware, there are many life events that can cause you to slip very quickly, and often without warning, from coping to not coping. These slips can be:

  • Purely workplace-related: the HSE Management Stress Standards list six mental health stressors such as (too much) workload and (poor quality) relationships – for example, incidents of bullying or harassment can be very damaging psychologically;
  • Related to your life outside work: you may suffer a family bereavement or the breakdown of a close relationship, or suddenly find yourself in debt; or
  • A mixture of work and home factors: this interface has become increasingly blurred, especially during the period of lockdown, with people having to work and educate children at home or help shield the most vulnerable from the virus.

The pandemic has made it harder to untangle the many strands that may be the root cause of poor mental wellbeing. The Acas helpline has seen record numbers (5,000 calls a day during the start of lockdown) of people calling our experts for advice on everything from redundancy rights to the national minimum wage; and changing contracts of employment to sick leave. But behind many of these calls, and the millions of hits on our website, are gnawing anxieties about job security, health and safety and what the future holds.

What we did

For most people, Acas is the conflict resolution service. Our bread and butter lies in preventing and resolving individual and collective disputes at work – so where does mental health fit into our rationale? A decade ago I would have said ‘nowhere’, but now we, along with many organisations, realise that expecting employees to leave their real selves at the site or office entrance is absurd. The word holistic is perhaps overused, but it basically means that most of us now use the ‘biopsychosocial model’ when thinking about how work interconnects with the all the other factors that influence how we experience our lives.

We developed the ‘Acas Framework for Positive Mental Health’ to help our customers take a joint approach to managing mental wellbeing in their workplace. We believe that there are three key players in this process:

  • Employers have a duty of care to ensure their organisations:

o          Fight stigma and promote equality and inclusion;

o          Identify the causes of work-related mental ill health, such as poorly managed change, and develop an effective action plan; and

o          Are sensitive to personal health issues like menopause, cancer and bereavement.

  • Line managers can be the facilitators of positive mental wellbeing if they:

o          Understand the law, for example around reasonable adjustments;

o          Take time to know their staff and help with developing coping strategies; and

o          Get trained in difficult conversations.

  • Individuals also have a responsibility to:

o          Help maintain their own good health;

o          Disclose their illness if it feels appropriate; and

o          Reach out to support colleagues where they can.

COVID-19 has not changed the basic principles upon which the framework is based, but it has certainly shifted the emphasis. For those employees working from home, it can be harder to monitor workload, for example, or to spot the signs of stress and intervene in the same personal way. Pastoral care of staff has undoubtedly become more complicated. There may be a greater need for emotional intelligence, but there is also an equal need for how to practise emotional intelligence (EI) in virtual settings – a case of AI meeting EI. On the basis of ‘what’s good for our customers is good for us’, we have adapted the framework to make it more relevant to the current environment and used it to train our line managers and staff.

What everyone else needs to do

Speaking at the online launch of this year’s World National Mental Health Day on 10 October, Dr Ingrid Daniels, President of the World Federation for Mental Health, warned that we are facing an ‘international mental health crisis and have been forewarned over the past two decades of this imminent catastrophe’.

This begs the question: ‘where has all the optimism gone?’ Only three years ago, the government review of mental health in the workplace, produced by Lord Stevenson and MIND’s Paul Farmer, set out an ambitious vision that by 2027 ‘employees in all types of employment’ will have ‘good work which contributes positively to their mental health, our society and the economy’.

By ‘all types of employment’ I presume they include the self-employed and those on atypical contracts, such as agency and zero-hours workers. The question of what constitutes ‘good work’ has helpfully evolved significantly, thanks to the work of Carnegie UK. A consensus has been reached about the importance of ingredients such as job security, good mental health, satisfaction with pay and having a sense of purpose in the job you do.

It remains to be seen whether the campaign for good work, on which the state of our collective mental health seems to rest, will survive the economic recession, let alone Brexit. There is a real danger than many aspects of good work will be seen as a ‘nice to have’, rather than a must, by businesses forced to focus solely on survival.

But perhaps we should finish on a note of cautious optimism. According to a large survey by Oracle, 68% of workers would prefer to talk to a robot than their manager about stress and anxiety at work. This may be just as well as because, according to new research from the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in the speed and scope of jobs at risk of automation. This was perhaps predictable, as machines do not have to comply with social distancing, self-isolate or claim sick pay!

Sadly, this brings us to a serious point. For a whole stack of reasons, the line manager has become the fulcrum for good employment relations, the interface between management culture and individual stories. Yet surveys repeatedly show that they lack the confidence to talk to their staff about mental health. It is just often seen as being another ‘difficult conversation’. Our own poll via YouGov found that although a majority of employees (79%) felt ‘very’ or ‘fairly confident’ in identifying the causes of their stress or anxiety, less than half (43%) said they would talk to their manager if they were feeling stressed and/or anxious.

We need to find innovative solutions for the COVID-related problems we face around communication, pastoral care and personal coping strategies if we are to identify, prevent and treat poor mental health at work in the unknown future that lies ahead.

Adrian Wakeling
Senior Policy Advisor
Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas)

This article is from issue 15 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.


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