Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work

Earlier this week, WPI Economics Director Matt Oakley signed the Time To Change pledge on behalf of the WPI Economics team. This pledge is a commitment from each team member to address mental health in the workplace and to tackle its stigma and discrimination.

Mental health and wellbeing is the subject of significant public dialogue, and with good reason: in any given week, one in six of us will experience a common mental health problem.

There is undoubtedly a very negative impact of mental ill health on the person experiencing it; feeling hopeless, distressed, overwhelmingly worried and worthless are just some of the experiences associated with common mental disorders, and in more severe cases people may have suicidal thoughts.

There are also financial costs of poor mental health to employers and the economy, as well as the NHS and other public services.

Financial costs of mental ill health

£24-£27 billion to the Government.

£33-£42 billion each year to employers.

£74-£99 billion to the UK economy.

Stevenson-Farmer Review 2017

Mental Ill Health in the Workplace: Prevalence and Factors

Typical features of the workplace can impair wellbeing and mental health; workload, deadlines, performance and financial targets, office conflict and the quality of the physical setting can all have a negative impact.

A recent report estimated that 15% of the current workforce is suffering with mental ill health and that 300,000 people with a long term condition lose their jobs every year; more than those lost to physical health (Stevenson-Farmer Review). Labour Force Survey estimates have consistently shown stress, depression and anxiety to be the single biggest cause of sickness absence caused or made worse by work and is the fourth most common reason employers are given for total sickness absence.

Labour Force Survey 2018

However, in around half or more cases, employees give a different reason for their absence when the true cause was stress, showing that figures reported by employers are probably an underestimate (Mental Health Foundation).

There are some reasons to be positive about attitudes to mental health in the workplace. Mental health charity Mind saw the number of organisations participating in their Workplace Wellbeing Index more than double since 2016. Of these organisations, more than 80% encourage staff to talk openly about mental ill health. It appears that a growing number of organisations recognise their role in workplace wellbeing and are implementing changes to address this, whether through Employee Assistance Programmes, mental health ‘Champions’ or activities and designated days to facilitate discussion about mental health.

The Impact of Stigma on Tackling Wellbeing and Mental Ill Health at Work

Regardless of policies and programmes implemented by employers, the stigma of mental health presents a significant barrier to progress on addressing mental health at work. It may result in employees avoiding accessing assistance or discussing issues with people who could direct them to support.

54% of employees felt comfortable talking about mental health in a general way, but just 16% felt able to disclose problems with mental health to their manager.
(Business in the Community 2018)

38% of workers would not talk openly about a mental health problem at work in case it had repercussions on their employment there.
(Mental Health Foundation 2017)

Even when support was available, only a third of employees experiencing mental ill health sought access to it.
(Mind 2018)

In contrast to the relative ease with which respondents were able to discuss mental health more broadly, it is clear that there is a reluctance to disclose personal mental health difficulties. There is also a discrepancy between attitudes to mental and physical health; ‘Parity of esteem’ between physical health and mental health was enshrined in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, but in practice 65% of managers agree that physical health is taken more seriously than mental health when employees take sick leave (Mental Health Foundation).

Changes to the Workplace Which Can Help Improve Wellbeing

There are positive steps employers can take to improve wellbeing at work and reduce work-related ill health, including sufficient flexibility which accommodates reasonable needs and commitments outside work, and encouraging adequate breaks for lunch. These changes can lead to higher job satisfaction, which benefits organisations through improved productivity and employee retention.

Senior-level participation can go a long way to ensuring positive norms are taken up; a quarter of respondents in a Bupa survey said that seeing their boss not take a lunch break made them feel pressure to skip a break themselves.

There are also changes to the physical environment which evidence has shown can improve mood and wellbeing at work. Natural light, the presence of plants and a comfortable temperature can have a significant impact on wellbeing and having natural light can even reduce the number of sick leave by days (Elzeyadi 2015).

How WPI Economics Plans to Tackle Mental Health at Work

WPI Economics is committed to ensuring an environment that is conducive to mental wellbeing and supportive of the needs of all who work here. As a relatively small organisation, we have a head start on some of the features that can encourage positive discussion of and tackling mental health, but our Time To Change pledge aims to reinforce these, as well as provide a strong foundation for further development in this area. A few examples include ensuring that all development meetings are held in a private setting so that colleagues can more freely discuss any problems, and that specific time is reserved on team Away Days to discuss wellbeing at work. Managers will also receive guidance on how to manage and support mental health at work and continued support to maintain this.

Mental health can impact on any of us, so it's time to take action. WPI are playing their part: what can you change in your workplace to support this agenda?

Below are links for useful resources and guidance on managing and addressing mental health at work as well as schemes which may be of interest to employers: