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Mental health awareness - surviving or thriving?

This week is Mental Health Week in the UK and May is Mental Health Month in the US. Our Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Dr Rosanna Duncan, reflects on the importance of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. It won’t just greatly improve people’s lives, it’ll make your business more successful.

'Enough is enough' is no good for business.

Good stress vs bad stress
Stress is closely linked to our mental health and wellbeing. Work related stress, depression or anxiety are defined as harmful reactions people have in response to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.

A certain amount of stress at certain times can be useful in our working lives, it can make us more alert and lead to better performance. Some pressure in a business environment can be advantageous; it can help to motivate people and boost energy levels and productivity.

When our flight or fight responses kick in they can give us that extra edge to deliver that near perfect presentation or beat the competition to that exciting new job opportunity. Some people thrive on stress and excitement, spending their spare time indulging in dangerous pursuits and high-risk activities.

But, stress is only healthy and useful to us if it is short-lived. Although not a medical condition, research indicates that prolonged exposure to stress is linked to conditions such as anxiety and depression. Stress can impact our state of mind, making us more forgetful and diminishing concentration levels. It can also make us feel vulnerable, tearful and can have a negative impact on our social skills and how we interact with others. If we fail to manage stress effectively we may develop a mental health problem. Fundamentally, stress is something that needs to be actively managed in every organisation and can have a massive impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Why should businesses care?
Put bluntly, unchecked stress and mental ill-health cost businesses money. In the UK in 2015, mental health problems – including anxiety, depression and stress – were the third most likely cause of sick leave. In the same year mental-health-related issues were found to lead to approximately 17.6 million days’ sick leave, or 12.7% of the total sick days taken in the UK! Work related stress is globally recognised as being responsible for millions of sick days per year, costing the world’s economy billions of dollars.

Managing stress at work is business critical. If it is not managed properly, or is actively ignored, workplace stress can cause employee health and absence problems, reducing individual and organisational productivity.

It has long been accepted that happy employees are more productive in the workplace, if people are happier they give more to their work and gain more satisfaction. Creating an environment where employees can thrive, will not only benefit the individual and wider society, but will keep the wheels of business turning.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 asks why too few of us are thriving with good mental health.

Who is responsible for mitigating the 'risk factors'?
Ultimately the responsibility for ensuring a workforce is happy and healthy starts at the top. The board, CEO, senior leaders and all employees have a critical role to play in in creating an environment which promotes mental health, well-being and mitigates the risk factors that can cause debilitating stress. Creating a culture that understands and values the importance of mental health and well-being is crucial.

However, on a day to day basis, the line manager is perhaps most critical. Manager behaviour is one of the most commonly reported causes of stress in the workplace. Worryingly, research suggests that one in five line managers are seen by employees as ineffective, and a lack of support, recognition and feedback is cited as the top cause of stress for employees.

So, what do line managers need to do better to create working environments that enable employees to thrive, rather than those which make employees feel as if they are barely surviving?

3 tips for line managers
1. Give up control. Line managers who find it difficult to give up control, need to take a deep breath and trust the person the organisation has hired. Think about it, this person was hired by the company to do a job, if the employee has performance issues then this can be managed via a number of methods, whether coaching or additional training. Breathing down the neck of an employee is useful to no one and costs the company money. Line managers need to avoid the perils of micromanaging. Micromanagement not only stifles creativity, innovation and growth of the individual and the business, it can also contribute to stress in the workplace. Giving employees greater autonomy, control and increasing their decision-making power are likely to see increases in their levels of performance and job satisfaction, as well as reduced absenteeism and staff turnover.

2. Change, shout it from the roof tops. Some people thrive on the prospect of change. For others, it can feel as if the world as they know it is coming to an end. They may wonder how they will survive the new dawn. But, the prospect of the unknown can be more frightening than the unknown itself. The management and communication of organisational change is critical in reducing stress and promoting mental wellbeing in the work place, particularly amongst dispersed or virtual teams. Line managers should play a pivotal role in keeping employees informed when change is happening. Acting as secretive gate keepers of knowledge and information is a sure way to create suspicion and mistrust. Sharing information and acting in an open and transparent way will help to put employees at ease and create an environment of trust.

3. Modelling the right behaviours. The management of mental health and wellbeing should also be systematic. Companies have a responsibility to model those behaviours that can create a positive and healthy working environment and act swiftly when there are behaviours which have a negative impact; like bullying for example. This requires line managers to understand that employees are not a homogenous group of clones that thrive in the same way or for the same reasons. Line managers need to be sensitive to diversity in the workplace; not just with regards to characteristics such as race, gender or disability, but also, diversity of thought and approach. To create the most effective, inclusive and stress-free environment, line managers need to embrace diversity and not stifle it.

Mental health is the ‘elephant in the room’
There is no doubt that stigma remains a great barrier to effectively responding to the mental health issues many face in companies across the world. Ego and pride remain blockages in corporate culture – ‘big boys (and girls) don’t cry’! Before we can think about designing governance structures that are able to proactively ‘manage’ mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, corporate culture has a way to go to recognise the role mental health plays in business. Our challenge as business people is to recognise the link between wellbeing and performance. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also good for business.