Stress and poor mental health at work has never been more prevalent, but help is at hand for everyone at all levels, as Emma Mamo, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind explains.
Tom Alford, TMI (TA): How would you assess the general sense of wellbeing of employees at work in the current environment?
Emma Mamo, Mind (EM): Every workplace and sector – including finance – has its own unique set of pressures and how employees respond to them will vary, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling these contributory factors. Sometimes, a small amount of pressure can help us to complete tasks and feel more energised. But this can become a problem when it lasts for a long time or is very intense. Frequently cited causes of stress and poor mental health at work include long working hours, excessive workload, unrealistic targets, tight deadlines and difficult relationships with managers, colleagues and clients.
We know that mental health problems were common among employees before the pandemic, but our research suggests poor mental health at work has never been more prevalent, and this trend is reflected in the general population too.
In 2020/21, we surveyed more than 40,000 staff working across 114 organisations taking part in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index – our benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to mental health at work. Almost three out of five (58%) employees surveyed told us they are affected by poor mental health in their current workplace. That’s why mental health must be high on the agenda for every employer, regardless of size or sector.
TA: Do companies typically have in place policies and measures that offer effective means to address both the ongoing and immediate mental health needs of their employees?
EM: Wellbeing provision varies from one organisation to another but Mind can support employers of all sizes and sectors on their journey to becoming a mentally healthy workplace. We do this through the free resources on Mind’s website for both employers and staff and the Mental Health at Work website, as well as through training and our Workplace Wellbeing Index – a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to promoting good mental health at work.
However, it’s not just about drawing up policies and procedures, but making sure the culture of the workplace is open and transparent. It is also about ensuring wellbeing is embedded and prioritised by all staff at every level – including getting buy-in from senior leaders. It’s also not just about having workplace wellbeing initiatives set up, but making sure they are well advertised, easy to access, and relevant to the needs of staff. A great way to find out the causes of work-related poor mental health is regularly surveying staff anonymously, and making sure feedback is listened to.
TA: To what extent is increasing pressure and workload on senior managers impacting their wellbeing, and what other causes are you seeing that impact workplace performance?
EM: Most of us will experience an element of pressure in our jobs every now and again, and in the short term it can be beneficial, helping us to meet deadlines, for example. But long-term exposure to pressure can lead to the type of stress that we tend to experience when the amount being asked of us exceeds our capacity to cope with those demands. There is a strong link between stress and mental health problems, with long-term stress worsening existing mental health problems, or even causing staff to develop new ones. Employers have a responsibility to promote good mental health among their staff, including tackling the causes of unmanageable stress.
The effects of prolonged, unmanageable stress will vary from one employee to another, but in the workplace could include a normally sociable colleague become quiet and withdrawn; or it could manifest as problems with things like punctuality and decision-making; difficulty handling complaints and negative feedback or increased irritability. Left unchecked, unmanageable stress could result in worsening mental health, decreased productivity, and increased sickness absence.
Managers – and especially middle managers – often bear the brunt of stress in the workplace, and may feel less able to be honest about how they are feeling, especially with their own line reports. Creating a culture where all staff of all levels can speak openly about their mental health is vital.
TA: How can employees begin to recognise the onset of work-related stress and anxiety in themselves and colleagues?
EM: If you’re worried about the wellbeing of your employee or co-worker, try to ask open questions, listen non-judgmentally and try not to make assumptions about their mental health. Even if they’re not willing or able to talk to you at the moment, you’ve at least let them know you’re there for them if and when they need it. It’s also really important that you respect confidentiality if a colleague discloses their experiences of poor mental health at work to you, while encouraging them to seek support from their manager or someone else they trust.
It’s always OK to ask for help – even if you’re not sure you are experiencing a specific mental health problem. It is always important to talk about your feelings and open up when you are struggling. Whether that’s talking to your employer, friends and family, going to your GP [doctor], or speaking to a charity such as Mind, talking about your problems can make a real difference. The people closest to us can often be a valuable source of support.
TA: Are there any mental health ‘first-aid’ measures that employees can take, having recognised an issue in themselves or a colleague?
EM: There are lots of training courses – including Mental Health First Aid and mental health awareness training provided by organisations including Mind – that can help staff (especially line managers and HR professionals) better identify and support someone who is experiencing a mental health problem at work. That said, you don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health. The most important elements are listening non-judgmentally, respecting confidentiality, and not making assumptions about someone’s mental health, particularly if, for whatever reason, they don’t feel comfortable opening up.
Identifying and supporting a colleague struggling with their mental health can be even harder if your employer is adopting a hybrid working model because you won’t get as much face time with your colleagues as you previously did. Regularly creating the space and time to catch up and discuss any issues – whether personal, professional or both – is a good first step. A good way to facilitate these conversations is by using a Wellness Action Plan – a free tool available to download from Mind’s website. This helps employees and their line managers identify the specific parts of the job that may be most challenging to them, and what their manager and other colleagues can do to help lessen the impact. We have separate guides for people who attend a workplace, work remotely or work in a hybrid way.
TA: What workplace support systems are most effective in assisting employees to tackle stress and anxiety, and in building longer-term resilience and wellbeing?
EM: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling poor mental health in the workplace because every organisation is different and the individuals who comprise the workforce have their own unique set of stress and poor mental health, and may react differently. Generally, employers further along on their journeys to creating mentally healthy workplaces focus on identifying and tackling the work-related causes of poor mental health, promote and prioritise good mental health for all employees, and invest in the wellbeing of staff. They aim to create a culture where all staff of any level feel able to talk openly about their mental health and know that if they do, they’ll be met with support and understanding, rather than stigma and discrimination.
Forward-thinking employers also recognise their legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to any employee experiencing a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which can include a mental health problem if it has a “substantial, adverse, and long term effect on normal day-to-day activities”. Adjustments need not be expensive, typically they might include flexible hours or change to start or finish time; change of workspace; return-to-work policies such as a phased return; changes to role (temporary or permanent); changes to break times; increased support from managers in prioritising and managing workload; or provision of quiet rooms.
TA: Is there anything employees can do, individually or in groups, if there is a lack of formal support in the workplace?
EM: Make the business case to your employer. We know that lots of employers – particularly small ones – are concerned about implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives because they don’t have the budget. Some initiatives have a cost attached, such as offering staff activities such as subsidised exercise classes or gym membership and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). EAPs can help staff with both work-related and personal issues and offer a wide range of support including access to talking therapies like counselling. Implementing measures such as these saves money in the long run, as employers who prioritise workplace wellbeing tend to report more happy, engaged, productive, staff who are less likely to take time off sick, or leave the company altogether. It’s therefore in employers’ interests to put these measures in place. Recent research by Deloitte UK found employers saw an average of £5.30 return for every £1 invested in programmes that promote staff wellbeing.
There are many steps staff can take too, for example creating wellbeing networks and champions to push mental health up the agenda. This could include establishing wellbeing support such as buddy systems or making use of the Random Coffee Initiative – where employees are paired for a catch-up with colleagues they might not ordinarily get the chance to work with. It could also include inviting mental health experts to online panel events or lunch-and-learn events giving staff the opportunity to learn more about mental health in the workplace.
TA: What would be your key message to employers when considering the workplace wellbeing of their staff?
EM: As with all sectors, the financial sector needs to help employees overcome any barriers they may face in talking about their mental health and asking for help. We know that in male-dominated workplaces, stigma surrounding mental health can be even greater, with common misconceptions around the matter leading to people staying quiet, often fearing that they’ll be deemed less capable or able to cope. We want all employers – regardless of size or sector – to create environments where staff of all roles and levels feel able to come forward if and when they are struggling emotionally and know that if they do, they’ll be met with support and understanding. Thankfully, perceptions of mental health within the sector are improving in the UK, thanks in part to strides made by not-for-profits such as the City Mental Health Alliance.
Employees should be aware that their employers have a legal duty to protect and promote their physical and mental health, covered in the UK by Health and Safety and Equality Act legislation. But we want employers to see promoting good mental health as more than a legal obligation, rather part of being a responsible employer and sending a message to staff that they are valued and appreciated.
Changing the negative culture around mental health and tackling the causes of stress and poor mental health at work will benefit all staff, whether or not they have a diagnosed mental health problem.
- Mind is a UK mental health charity. It provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. It campaigns to improve services, raise awareness, and promote understanding.
- Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available in the UK on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday)
- Mind’s online mental health community, Side by Side, is a safe space where anyone aged 18 and over with experience of a mental health problem can share their story, connect with others, access Mind’s wider information and resources, and give support in return. Find out more at www.sidebyside.mind.org.uk.
- Mind provides training to businesses to help them feel confident when talking about mental health. It also offers free resources for employers and staff to help improve mental wellbeing. For more information, visit mind.org.uk/workplace or contact [email protected].