Guest blog by James Hewitt, Head of Client Services Europe, LifeWorks
Today’s workplace looks very different from even a decade ago, and with this has come increased scrutiny of employee wellbeing. With millennials now forming 50% of the global workforce, the oldest of generation Z starting work for the first time, and a growing culture of 24/7 connectedness and remote working, workplaces are witnessing changes in communication, work culture and management techniques. Employers and workers alike are having to adapt to these changes at a rapid pace.
This new way of working allows us to operate from home, work any time of day and communicate with colleagues in different time zones. Such flexibility does, however, place pressure on employees to be constantly ‘switched on’ and connected to work most hours of the day. Such blurring of work-life boundaries leads us to question the impact this new work culture has on employees’ mental health, and what bosses can do to support employees facing mental pressures from both their work and personal life.
CIPD’s 2016 report, ‘Employee Outlook: Focus on Mental Health in the Workplace’ brings some interesting employee views to light, among which is the belief that employers still have some way to go before developing a robust framework to support staff with mental health issues. Over the past five years, the proportion of workers who have experienced mental health problems has increased from 26% to 31%; of these, only 43% disclose mental health issues to managers. Along similar lines, NatCen Social Research’s 2016 British Social Attitudes 33 report states that 37% of workers experience stress “always” or “often”, compared with 28% in 1989. CIPD’s 2016 report also reveals that workers’ perceptions of employer support remains low – just 46% report that their organisations support employees experiencing mental health problems very well or fairly well, only a slight increase from 37% in 2011.
The issue of mental health continues to be brought into the public eye, thanks to initiatives such as Time to Change and the World Federation for Mental Health campaign to take mental health support as seriously as we take first aid. These campaigns aim to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues in the public domain. However, considering only 46% of employees perceive their employer to be supportive regarding these issues, there is clearly a lot more to be done in the workplace.
So what can employers do to convince their workforce that they’re taking mental health seriously in 2017?
By offering access to mental health practitioners and counsellors, or even promoting the use of helplines such as Mind, large and small companies can encourage workers to seek confidential advice. Providing direct access to discreet support online and via phone ensures workers’ issues are handled with sensitivity. Employees are more likely to use these services if they are easily available and offered confidentially.
Introducing a ‘buddy’ scheme – whereby every employee has a designated colleague to ask advice and confidential support – will strengthen the organisation and staff, and provide a further understanding of each other’s individual pressures at work and home. In addition, businesses can benefit from training staff of all levels to support those with mental health issues in the most appropriate way.
The flexibility of working from home every once in a while proves highly beneficial in preventing stress-related issues emerging for all workers, and especially those with complex family situations and other health problems. However, whilst encouraging flexibility, employers should be aware of workers who do not seem to switch off outside of reasonable working hours. Managers can keep track of those sending emails late at night, for instance, identify who is carrying a heavy workload, and make appropriate changes to avoid burnout.
Celebrate the differences
Mental health is an all-encompassing term, covering diagnosed conditions, reactions to life experiences, day-to-day stress and much more. Companies who celebrate the diversity of their staff are likely to help remove the taboo of mental health issues, and encourage workers to consider the qualities those with certain conditions can bring, such as empathy and attention to detail.
Overall, with three in ten people experiencing mental health issues in the workplace, there is clearly a need for improvement in employer support. We are in the midst of a 24/7 email culture, and employers need to be wary of burnout and putting too much pressure on staff so as to avoid mental health problems. Considering the increasing rates of employee stress and a lack of faith in employer support, now is the time for companies to reverse this trend. By making small changes and forming a support structure that suits their workforce, employers can support those with pre-existing mental health conditions as well as reduce the chances of issues developing for others.