According to the most recent Labour Force Survey (LFS), 828,000 UK workers experienced work-related stress, depression or anxiety during 2019 – 2020. To put it into perspective, that’s enough people to fill Wembley Stadium to capacity more than nine times over.
Staff absences amounted to almost 18 million working days lost as a direct result of work-related issues. They’re worth more than half (55%) of all working days lost in the UK during that time period.
Looking at the numbers
Naturally, it’s easy to blame COVID-19 and the consequential pressures of an ongoing health pandemic and economic crisis. Granted, the fallout of COVID has had – and will continue to have – a significant impact on workforce mental health.
However, the LFS research suggests that COVID isn’t actually the main culprit for the hike in work-related stress, depression and anxiety. In fact, the rise in these specific issues – and the resulting loss of working days – has been a consistent upward trend over the past two decades.
The report revealed that the highest cases of work-related stress were found in the electricity, steam, gas and air-conditioning industries in 2019/20. These were closely followed by public administration, human health, social work, and the education sectors.
The most common causes for work-based anxiety were identified as:
- Pressures of demanding workloads.
- Unforgiving deadlines.
- Having too much responsibility to deal with.
- A lack of sufficient managerial support.
Outside of LFS’s research, other common causes include job security, financial concerns, and workplace bullying.
It suggests that creating space for mental health in business is essential every single day, not just when navigating a particular crisis.
What businesses can do to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees
Making space for mental in business comes in many different shapes and sizes. It’s not just about assigning a mentor or a mental health representative (although these are still great ideas which we’ll touch upon in a moment).
Creating space in mental health is about everything, from interior design and inclusive facilities, to your attitude towards flexible working, professional development and the all-important work-life balance.
With that in mind, we wanted to share our advice on how as a business owner, you can start doing more to acknowledge and support the mental health of your employees. After all, a healthy, happy workforce is a productive, motivated and highly collaborative workforce.
And remember, it’s not only for your employees – it’s for you, too.
Assign an internal mental health advocate
According to a body of research published by not-for-profit health society, Benenden Health, less than a quarter (23.8%) of employees said that their company regularly engages with them on issues surrounding mental health.
In order to challenge stigma attached to topics around mental health, businesses should create a culture encouraging transparency and support. A great way to do this is by assigning the responsibility of mental health advocate to a willing internal employee (a role typically suited to somebody with HR credentials).
Having that nearby shoulder to cry on or ear to listen can be extremely reassuring for an employee who wants to discuss things like deadline-related stress, issues with colleagues, workplace bullying, or even problems occurring outside of work.
If you work for yourself, who in your support network is your advocate? Whether you work alone (or find it lonely at the top), identifying a sounding board and cheerleader for your mental health can be key to helping you focus.
Offer access to external and professional support
As well as offering internal support through a mental health advocate or mentor, it’s also great advice to provide employees (and yourself) with information on how they can access professional help and expert guidance, outside of work.
You might even wish to partner with a service which is able to offer your staff access to a 24/7 mental health helpline. This information could be communicated internally and reiterated in mental health and wellbeing workshops held by qualified third parties.
Let mental wellbeing influence your workspace interior design
The mental wellbeing of employees is often significantly steered by the physical environment in which they work. It’s something to consider carefully when designing and kitting out your workspace.
Design elements proven to improve employee wellbeing include:
- Ergonomic furniture which is comfortable and offers support. This includes rest and comfort areas.
- Acoustic solutions designed to reduce background noise distraction. This might include appropriate ear-defenders for safely using loud machinery, or if machinery is in use nearby.
- A clear, clutter-free space.
- Use of calming, happy colours where appropriate and safe – for instance, in offices.
- Allowing as much daylight as possible into the space.
- Good ventilation and fresh air.
- Indoor plants and biophilic greenery.
- Workspaces which cater to different physical abilities, ages and personalities.
Consider permitting leave for mental health reasons
According to Benenden Health research, 8 in 100 employees have a history of self-harm and 14% have experienced suicidal thoughts. As such, some employers are introducing mental health leave which doesn’t eat into annual holiday or standard sickness leave.
Much like the leave of absence somebody might take if they were physically ill, injured or unable to work, mental health leave enables staff who are struggling to take some time away.
Do more to encourage a healthy work/life balance
Overworking usually leads to neglecting quality time with family and friends, and spending less time on outside hobbies and interests. In addition, a substantial 34% of respondents admit to experiencing problems with sleep.
Tight deadlines, work-related stress, long hours, or symptoms of depression can all keep us awake. It’s crucial to promote the importance of making room for rest, rejuvenation and downtime away from work.
Other ways you can encourage a better work/life balance are:
- Encourage physical activity with free gym memberships, cycle to work schemes, and onsite or online classes.
- Implement a flexible work policy to accommodate more fluid working hours.
- Allow staff to work from home as and when they need to.
- Lead by example! Show staff that you need leisure time too.
- Suggest early finishes or a longer lunch break from time-to-time.
Create a mental health policy and be transparent about it
A mental health professional can help you create a mental health policy, either as an employer, or as a personal plan. It could include things like:
- Realistic aspirations for mental health support within the business.
- A plan if you or your employees are struggling.
- How to ask for help, when, and dealing with things confidentially.
It’s a useful document to share with your workforce so they know that support is available to them should they need it.
Improving staff retention
Cultivating a working environment which supports mental wellbeing isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity, not only for staff retention and performance, but for your personal wellbeing, too. It also goes a long way towards sending the right signals about what your business stands for.
If you want to attract and retain the best talent in your industry then demonstrate that you genuinely care, and consider their wellbeing in decision-making processes.
Almost half (46%) of Benenden Health’s respondents agreed that they would seek out another job if they felt that their current employer wasn’t doing enough to support problems relating to mental health.
As an employer, it’s important to remember that what you see of your staff during the working day is just a part of their lives. Modern businesses now need to think about the wider picture.
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