Mental health in the workplace: stepping back and seeking solutions

By Gill Dix, Head of Workplace Policy, Acas

As the public debate, the media, and society have opened up to the mental health agenda, workplaces and employers, quite rightly, are gradually becoming more attuned. The Government-commissioned Stevenson and Farmer Review has helped, pointing out the ‘significant mental health challenge at work’ that the UK faces, and the importance of the employer’s role when it comes to creating ‘a positive and supportive workplace culture… free from stigma’. The question is how do we create the culture and make it one free of the stigma and negativity associated with mental health.

Reflecting the standards set out in the Review, Acas has drawn on research and insight from working with companies and stakeholders to develop our framework for positive mental health at work. At the core of this is our view that achieving positive mental health is a shared agenda - employers, managers and individuals are all impacted, and together responsible for identifying and managing the factors that affect our mental wellbeing.

As we continue to develop our understanding, Acas wants to know more about what drives individual perspectives and experiences when it comes to mental health at work. We commissioned a new poll as part of this, taking a look in the first instance at the mental health of employees, here focusing on the experience of stress and anxiety about work.

Findings show high levels of anxiety inside GB workplaces - according to our poll, two-thirds of employees (66%) have felt stressed and/or anxious about work in the last year. Our poll found that while the majority (72%) of employees believe it is the role of the manager to recognise and address stress and anxiety in the workplace, only two-fifths (43%) would talk to their manager if they were feeling this way. A quarter (28%) said it was HR’s role to recognise and address stress: 10% said they would turn to HR to talk about stress or anxiety. Worrying still, more than one in four (28%) of those who feel stressed ‘don’t do anything’ and ‘try to get on with things’.

There is clearly some disconnect between what employees need and want. The question is how we can close the gap. Much may well come down to communication. Talking and listening are two-way affairs and when it comes to mental health, it’s an understandably sensitive issue. Training managers to listen and raising their awareness of mental health is part of the solution, but so is creating a culture of openness. This almost certainly needs to start at the top, with leaders and managers in organisations of all sizes demonstrating their commitment to change. HR has a role to play both in stimulating the debate, and in ensuring the policies are in place to create the foundation for a cultural change. All this seems even more crucial when we find that only 8% of employees say that their organisation is ‘very good’ at preventing employees from feeling stressed and/or anxious about work.

As important is addressing the underlying issues where work is a contributory factor to stress and anxiety. Echoing evidence from the recent CIPD and Simplyhealth study, the main causes cited were workload (60%), the way people are managed (42%) and balancing work and home life (35%). Mirroring the causes, the solutions chosen were ‘a reduced workload’ (33%), ‘better flexible working opportunities’ (26%) and ‘more clarity around what is required from me for my job role’ (23%).

Overall, the Acas poll highlights the challenge we face now that the lid is off the box on mental health at work. This is of particular significance when we consider the vast amount of rapid changes being experienced in the workplace today, not least in new business models, new ways of working and the impact of technological change. What is clear is that we need each key player - the employer, manager and individual - to start viewing mental health holistically and start to rework the current mind-sets, behaviours and cultures in the workplace. Stepping back and taking a long look at solutions is important but for starters:

  • Individuals can be encouraged to look after their own wellbeing, identifying coping strategies that work for them;
  • Managers can plan work with people in mind, and gain the confidence and knowledge in managing mental health; and
  • Employers, with the support of HR can tackle the causes of workplace stress, support their managers and lead and embed a wellbeing strategy.

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  • A great read, thank you.  I think the future of the workplace too, in terms of layout and design, needs further reflection and consideration on the impact on individuals mental health.  The drive for Activity Based Working and spaces that are designed for collaboration, confidential work, meetings etc I believe will start to have an impact on health and wellbeing.