Author: Francesca Ridley, Mercer
Today’s employees are stressed. Research from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days are lost due to ill health. Additionally, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace report states that 7.8% of an employer’s wage bill is lost due to absenteeism and presenteeism, a large proportion of which will be due to stress. Presenteeism is the term for when people are at work but not well enough to be fully productive, which is not often considered by employers.
New BITC research shows that 60% of people have experienced mental health issues in the past year because of work. This isn’t something new, but the modern ways of working and today’s rapid pace of change are putting increased pressure on employees. Our Talent Trends survey shows that this uncertainty is causing high levels of stress and anxiety among employees.
With mental health issues now at the highest reported level since records began, this presents an opportunity to look at why your employees are stressed, how your organisation may be contributing to this stress and what you can do to alleviate it.
Businesses can no longer afford to ignore employee mental health
Mental health has received relatively little attention in the workplace to date. The prevailing attitude that mental health problems affect only a small proportion of the workforce has been reflected in a lack of initiatives and training. However, as the research above shows, this is a very serious issue affecting a large section of the workforce. Any proactive employer aiming to run a people-centric business needs to address this problem head on– and will benefit from doing so.
As well as being the right thing to do, safeguarding employees’ mental health equips organisations to succeed thanks to an energised and thriving workforce. Supporting employees with mental health issues helps them become better employees who bring their whole selves, their energy and their spirit to work.
Helping your employees manage their mental health is only one side of the coin. On the other side, every workplace needs to be aware of the role it is potentially playing in causing or accelerating mental stress. This is a challenging subject that will require your organisation to examine three key areas:
3 Key Areas to Examine:
1. Job design and workplace stress
Job clarity has suffered in this era of fast-paced change and business disruption. In an effort to manage the transition to this new world, some organisations have overloaded employees with responsibilities and tasks without also providing the tools and role clarity to help them do an effective job. This is creating untold stress. Indeed, the biggest cause of workplace stress, depression and anxiety in the HSE research was workload pressure, followed by lack of support.
Role clarity is essential so employees are not trying to cover all bases. This means that, as an organisation, you need to make clear the goals of each employee’s role, what exactly the employee is responsible for, and what tasks and activities they should focus on.
Another area you may need to address is the effect of organisational delayering. Many organisations have removed middle management positions in recent years in an effort to boost efficiency, transferring these responsibilities instead to line managers or team leaders. These individuals may now need to wear multiple hats, from technical expert to people and process manager, all without the support of a management layer above them. If this delayering has happened in your organisation, you may need to carefully consider what you are expecting of these roles and whether they are sustainable and manageable.
2. Hyper-connectivity and mental health
Diminished job clarity is not the only recent change that may be affecting your employees’ mental health. Our modern work culture means that many of your employees may be online for much of the day, whether at home or in the office. They may have to deal with huge volumes of email and be expected to respond to messages within a certain time. This always-on culture can put individuals under tremendous pressure that can have a detrimental effect on their mental health.
As we develop ever-more agile structures and encourage project-based teamwork to spark innovative products and initiatives, it is important to check whether employees are becoming so connected that they can’t actually focus on doing their jobs.
3. Productivity measurement and employee stress
Another, perhaps less obvious factor that may be overburdening your employees relates to the way we look at productivity. Productivity is about more than widgets on a manufacturing line, yet many organisations lack an understanding of the workforce attributes needed to produce the best outcomes – whether in terms of customer satisfaction, revenue, or the ability to take innovative solutions to market. Without a proper understanding of what productivity means for your organisation, you cannot ensure that your employees are working on the things that truly add value. And without knowing what adds value, your employees will keep going after everything, increasing their stress levels even further.
Considering what makes a worker productive in your organisation may help you differentiate between tasks that add value and those that add mere noise and, in this way, lighten your employees’ load.
A list of measures to reduce employee stress
Job design, hyper-connectivity and productivity are challenging areas that may require significant consideration. There is a spectrum of other ways in which you can help safeguard your employees’ mental health, spanning the physical environment, flexibility, support, communications, culture and wellness schemes.
- Offer quiet areas away from work stations and encourage rest and breaks
- Minimise unnecessary or distracting sounds, such as noisy air-conditioning
- Provide a clean, bright and well-ventilated workspace
- Recognise that workplace flexibility doesn’t just mean working from home – it can involve flexible start and end times, condensed work weeks, longer breaks to facilitate exercise or other activities, flexible break times and phased returns to work where employees have been unwell
- Acknowledge that there may be times in an employee’s life when they cannot give 100% to their job as usual and support these employees where possible – this support, which could involve paid leave for events such as house moves or becoming a grandparent, is highly valued and can help build company loyalty
- Offer voluntary buddy or mentor schemes involving confidential relationships between employees who have gone through similar issues
- Increase or decrease supervision of work as required to support an employee
- Tailor any support to the employee’s needs and try to see the situation holistically
- Focus on what people can do, not what they can’t
- Ensure that any communications about organisational change are sensitive to the mental stress that change may cause for employees
- Apply behavioural principles to communications to help change the broader workforce’s perception of mental health and de-stigmatise the issue
- For example, consider social norms – When individuals incorrectly perceive the attitudes and behaviours of others as different to their own, it creating negative reactions to difficult situations such as mental health. By understanding social norms theory, you can develop and implement communications programmes designed to de-stigmatise mental health and reduce discrimination
- Organise awareness weeks, including success stories about how the organisation has supported an employee, as a starting place for making mental health less of a taboo
- Introduce mental health first aiders, for example to train people managers in the sensitivities of supporting someone going through a difficult time
- Educate employees about stress and how to minimise it to stimulate healthy discussion and help people recognise when they might need to take a step back
- Remember that it is far more expensive to recruit and train a new employee than it is to make small adjustments to enable an existing employee to flourish
- Offer schemes as part of a flexible benefits package
- Support employees with benefits such as free or subsidised gym membership or healthy food at lunchtimes as a cost-effective way of reducing the impact of stress and promoting wellness.
Supporting and minimising mental health concerns is not just a nice thing to do, it is a serious health condition that if addressed in an appropriate manner will allow individuals to function more effectively in their jobs and within a supportive work environment. We need to remember that everyone has mental health and therefore these initiatives are for everyone, to help maintain good mental health and as a preventative method. It is time to take the stigma out of mental health, and create a business centred around it’s people who allow employees to bring their whole self to work and thrive.
Download the Mental Health at Work report 2017 by the Business in the Community (BITC) and sponsored by Mercer for recommendations for employers, senior practitioners, business leaders and line managers. Understand more about the future of work and the impact on employees in our Mercer Talent Trends report 2017.
Got a question? Want to know more?
This article does not contain advice in respect of actions you should take. No decision should be made based on this information without obtaining prior specific, professional advice relating to your own circumstances.