Mental health at work has never been a more important topic, with figures released by the Health and Safety Executive last year suggesting work-related stress, depression and anxiety had become an ‘epidemic’ affecting 595,000 people over the average year. Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Well-being at Nuffield Health, argues employers need to have a much fundamental rethink about well-being if such figures are to improve:
Public understanding of mental health is improving, but are employers keeping pace?
While awareness might have grown thanks to TV celebrities and the royals, the workplace – in my opinion – still presents unique problems. There is still huge fear among employees that raising a mental health issue will be career limiting. But added to this, there is still a significant language issue. We tend to medicalise mental health, and think of good mental health as being a total absence of any mental well-being issues. But this is completely unrealistic. The proper message all employers should be promoting is that we all have some mental health issues, and that we’re all somewhere along a continuum. It should be less about the fact one in four has a mental health problem (the traditional statistic used), because this just pushes the issue away. It should really be a four in four issue – because we all have mental health needs.
Why do some employers push back against the idea?
It’s certainly the case employers feel under pressure to have a ‘well-being’ policy – and there is also concern that wellness has become such a catch-all phrase, it’s difficult to know where to start with it. We see employers who simply fear mental health is ‘not their area’ – which again reflects the fear it’s a medical condition they don’t want to get involved in. The problem, though, is that if this continues, employers will not be facing up to their responsibilities. For instance, it’s now well established that good sleep is the gateway to good overall wellness, but it’s still the case that too many employers overvalue people that undervalue sleep. In other words, there’s a perception that going the extra mile, pushing through and working long hours is a desirable quality. It shouldn’t be.
Why are employees afraid to speak up about mental health?
Cultures drive behaviours. Recent research by Legal & General found that while 80 per cent of employers overwhelmingly believe they have an open culture, this perception does not filter down to staff. When the same question was posed to staff, only 5 per cent thought their company would listen to them. Part of this is down to staff simply thinking their GP will have a more listening ear, and that there’s no need to involve the ‘middle man’ – their employer. But this will have dangerous results. Employees do seek someone – and they are increasingly wanting their employer to be that source of advice and support. Employers need to offer multiple signposts – an EAP, mental health first aiders, pages on their intranet, support groups. It’s only when staff can see multiple sources of support that the culture of not talking will melt away.
Is ‘resilience’ damaging well-being?
The last few years has seen ‘resilience’ really hit the mainstream, and I’ve personally run resilience workshops where the response from staff has been: “you just want to make me able to do more work”. When presented in this way – to effectively make staff bulletproof – people will rightly feel their well-being isn’t actually taken seriously, and that employers simply want to heap more work on people. Organisations need to recognise resilience is a more rounded concept. Yes, there’s personal resilience, but employers also need to make sure their own organisation is resilient too – that is, create cultures where it’s OK for staff to hold their hand up and say they need help.
What’s next on the well-being agenda?
While it’s great well-being seems to be rising up the agenda, what’s needed is a fundamental shift in our thinking. The whole framing of well-being needs to change, away from asking ‘what’s wrong?’ with someone, to ‘what’s happening in your life right now?’ Crucially, line managers need to be equipped not to diagnose, but to signpost staff to the right avenues of help. There’s nothing worse than approaching well-being clumsily. Staff need to experience a ‘that’s me’ moment for them to identify support is there, and for that support to resonate with them. This starts with employers being far better at thinking about their holistic well-being offering.
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