Mental health, just like physical health, has a major impact on how well workers are able to carry out their jobs and lead fulfilling lives. Yet physical issues exacerbated by work remain far more easily discussed.
The language of mental health has permeated our day-to-day lives, like talk of mindfulness, coping strategies and de-stressing. But for many workers and their employers, mental health remains a taboo subject shrouded in embarrassment and the fear of stigma and discrimination.
This is despite the fact that mental health issues are widespread within our modern society with the Department of Health estimating that one in four adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any given year. The impact of mental illness on businesses and the economy is significant. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 91 million working days are lost because of mental illness each year with a cost to the UK economy of almost £26 billion. They break those costs down into three component parts:
- Sickness absence (£8.4 billion).
- Reduced productivity (£15.1 billion).
- Staff turnover (£2.4 billion).
What is mental illness?
Mental health affects the way individuals cope with problems and the normal difficulties of life and can impact on the way people think, feel and behave. Common mental illnesses include depression and anxiety.
Less common mental illnesses include:
- bi-polar disorder;
Some conditions develop slowly whilst others may be triggered by a sudden event such as a bereavement. Some people can manage their illness while others are so limited by their condition that it can be classed as a disability.
Causes of mental illness
There are myriad reasons for people falling ill with mental health problems but surveys have highlighted a number of areas of working life that can trigger stress, depression or anxiety. The Labour Force Survey of 2009/10-2011/12 (HSE) revealed that workload (tight deadlines, and too much work, pressure or responsibility) was by far the biggest cause of mental health issues. Other leading causes of stress, depression and anxiety in the workplace include:
- Lack of support from managers.
- Threat of violence in a person’s job role.
- Changes at work (e.g. restructuring).
- Uncertainty about what is expected by managers.
A survey of GPs (THOR-GP 2012-2014) also categorised personal relationships in the workplace as a leading cause of mental health problems.
Factors outside work that are known to increase vulnerability to mental illness include:
- childhood experiences;
- family relationships;
- financial worries;
- housing concerns;
The HSE has also identified certain sectors of the workforce to be more vulnerable to mental illness than others. Women in every age group are more susceptible to stress, depression and anxiety than men. People in large organisations are more vulnerable than those in smaller companies, and people working in public services (e.g. teachers, nurses, social workers and social services employees), or those in the defence industry, are far more vulnerable to mental health problems than workers in other areas like manufacturing, construction and transport.
Advice for employers regarding mental health in the workplace
Organisations with happy, focused and rewarded workers are generally more successful; sick leave will be lower, productivity higher and staff retention better.
Companies have a legal duty to support staff with mental health problems and have a general duty of care and responsibility for their employees’ health. Once they are aware that a member of staff has a mental health problem or disability, employers have a legal duty to consider making changes to help them.
Advice to employers focuses on the importance of creating a working environment in which workers feel able to talk to managers about their mental health without fear of stigma or discrimination.
Managers are encouraged to look for the signs of stress within their teams, such as:
- changes in people’s behaviour or mood;
- changes in work output, motivation and focus;
- struggling with decision-making;
- appearing tired or disinterested;
- changes in eating habits.
Businesses can improve the mental health of their staff by:
- creating a supportive culture;
- implementing policies that promote good mental health;
- talking to staff regularly about workload and how well they are coping with pressure;
- taking supportive steps to help someone who is struggling;
- keeping in contact with staff when they are off sick with stress;
- planning absent employees’ return to work carefully and ensuring that supportive changes are made to workloads or working environment.
Advice and guidance on health at work can be sought from the Fit for Work website or by calling the free advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). Mental health issues are a major cause of long-term sickness absence and any employees who have been off work due to ill health for four weeks or more can be referred to Fit for Work to identify the obstacles preventing a person from returning to work and produce a Return to Work Plan. There is a separate service in Scotland: fitforworkscotland.scot/.
Advice to employees wanting to look after their mental health
Employees have a duty of care to themselves and should talk to managers about workload and pressure before they become too much.
Other ideas for overcoming and reducing workday stress include:
- Making friends in the workplace by talking to colleagues face-to-face (rather than sending an email), going out to lunch with others or speaking to someone new.
- Exercising regularly by walking to work, walking at lunchtime or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
- Enjoying the moment – making the workplace a nice place to be by de-cluttering workspaces or sharing stories with colleagues.
- Learning something new by taking a course, joining a book club or learning about colleagues’ lives.
- Giving spare time and energies to good causes by volunteering or donating to charities.
Employees experiencing mental health issues should seek medical advice and report any symptoms to their employer as soon as possible. Employers have a duty to consider making adjustments to workplaces or job roles and may seek the help of an occupational health professional. Anyone experiencing health issues affecting their ability to work and access free online resources at Fit for Work, or can call the free advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh).
Employees who have been off work for four weeks or more due to a mental health issue can ask their GP or employer for a referral to Fit for Work. A separate service is available in Scotland (fitforworkscotland.scot – 0800 019 2211).