Employers Must Look Closer To Recognize Nuances Driving Employee Mental Health

Yesterday saw the 30th anniversary of World Mental Health Day – a global event recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) under the auspices of the World Federation for Mental Health.

One arena where the inherent pressures and strains create both unique mental health challenges and fuel pre-existing ones is undoubtedly the workplace.

This may go some way to explaining why mental health-related absence was found to be the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in U.K. workplaces according to a 2019 report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The report identified stress, depression and anxiety to be responsible for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018 and 2019.

Given this significant impact, employers and corporate leaders simply don’t possess the luxury of solely focusing on organizational mental health on just one day if the year or even attending to it intermittently.

Rather, the post-pandemic mental health crisis currently ablaze across western society is something that organizations need to pay full and consistent attention to.

There also exists a need to understand the complexities of the interplay of mental health and the workplace and appreciate that, as such, there are few simple one-size-fits-all modular solutions but rather, approaches that require diligent crafting and tailoring to the many different drivers of mental health difficulties in working age adults.

Different pressure points

These drivers can be broadly split into two categories – those that arise directly from internal pressures related to specific job roles and those that have their roots outside of the workplace but are often intensified by its demands.

In the case of the most recent worldwide disruptor to the work/life balance – the Covid-19 pandemic, a dangerous intersection of both internal and external elements was at play.

Certainly, there were undoubted historic and unprecedented upheavals to working practices, some of which, such as increased flexibility around working from home, were not wholly negative.

Nonetheless, particularly during those dark days of the spring and winter of 2020, everything in and out of work was overlaid with a sense of fear and trepidation as people were unable to attend the funerals of loved ones and lived with uncertainty with respect to their own health.

Whilst Covid, it is hoped, was a once in a lifetime, if not a century, event – there remain other life experiences that are always likely to fuel mental health challenges in the workplace but are often overlooked.

One example that commonly flies under the radar is parenting. This may be because something like the arrival of a baby is usually viewed as a joyous occasion purely to be celebrated.

Nonetheless, parenting children of all ages can cause significant workplace mental health strains for some employees.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, 43% of parents reported being more concerned about their children’s mental health with this, in turn, negatively impacting employee well-being and productivity.

On average, 70% of calls to the Health Line of BUPA, a major provider of private healthcare in the U.K., have a family-related aspect.

At the same time, the perinatal period (the weeks immediately before and after childbirth) is a recognized danger zone for mental health difficulties that can be significantly heightened by work pressures.

It is wrongly assumed that issues like perinatal depression or PTSD only apply to women at work, but they can impact men too, who may struggle to admit what they are experiencing due to fear of misconceptions and stigma.

Addressing the interplay of parenting and workplace mental health, Gosia Bowling, Nuffield Health’s National Lead for Mental Health says, “Like financial stress, concern over our families’ physical and mental wellbeing can lead to lack of sleep, reduced focus, stress, and low mood. All these symptoms are likely to impact on wellbeing and productivity, both in people’s personal and professional lives.”

She continues, “Alerting parents and caregivers to relevant employee support, at key times, should be a business priority. Adopting employment practices and benefits, which support your staff’s families help lessen stress, advocate a better work-life balance and have further consequent gains for workplace productivity, engagement, and wellbeing.”

Appropriate signposting should entail access to online mental health platforms for employees and their families with content based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy being a part of standard employee benefit schemes.

According to research from LifeWorks, which included a survey of some 500 hiring professionals, employee assistance programs, mindfulness training and wellbeing programs are often significantly under-used due to a potential lack of awareness about these benefits or lack of support from peers.

Learning on the job

Whilst certain practices such as line manager training on how to discuss mental health issues with staff and robust HR policies to make the process of disclosing mental health problems as destigmatized as possible are table stakes – their importance shouldn’t be underestimated.

However, insufficient attention may be paid to the fact that particular job roles possess their own unique mental health challenges specific to that position.

During the pandemic, there was plenty of coverage given over to the bravery of frontline key workers, particularly within the health sector, and it should not be presumed that the repercussions of such upsetting experiences are not still felt today.

Nevertheless, certain parts of the service sector are not without their significant pitfalls as well.

In a recent media release, Kura, one of the largest suppliers of outsourcing services in the U.K., wrote about the mental health challenges of call center work.

Addressing, in particular, roles in which customer service agents routinely receive a high volume of complaints – the company urged managers to consider rotating tasks between calls, alternative communication channels and administrative duties to prevent employees suffering undue levels of stress and anxiety.

Earlier this year, LawCare’s 2021 “Life in the Law” report revealed that 69% of respondents working in the legal profession had experienced mental ill-health in the previous 12 months.

That same year, the International Bar Association (IBA) published its “Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession” report and cited legal professionals’ mental wellbeing as an ongoing global concern.

Despite the varying push and pull factors leading to mental health challenges in the workplace – in terms of solutions there remains one singular unifying strand.

Communication is key.

Whether it be leadership shouting from the rooftops about employee benefit schemes and other mental health support or line managers demonstrating their openness to lending a friendly ear.

Of equal importance must be that staff members feel empowered to speak up without fear of stigma and a blow to prospects of career progression.

That way, mental health issues can emerge from the shadows they, sadly, all too often occupy and begin to receive the warming light of human compassion and enhanced understanding.

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