Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace


NEBOSH talks to Alexis Powell-Howard, Managing Director and Psychotherapist at Fortis Therapy & Training, to find out more about mental health in the workplace, the signs to be aware of and some of the measures you can put in place to support staff.

Q. Mental health and wellbeing has received a lot of press recently. Why is it so important to talk about these topics in the workplace?

Mental health is one of society’s last remaining taboos, yet one in six UK workers suffer from stress, depression or anxiety. With such a large portion of the workforce experiencing these issues it is something that needs to be addressed effectively.

Q. Why do companies need to address it?

As the famous saying goes “a happy worker is a productive worker”, and this really does ring true. A worker who is under stress is going to be less effective at work than someone who isn’t. The Telegraph recently reported that poor mental health costs employers between £33bn and £42bn a year, which amounts to an annual cost per employee of up to £1,560. With this in mind it is important for organisations to be able to identify the signs of stress, anxiety and depression, as well as any workplace causes or contributors.

Q. What are the main causes of workplace stress, anxiety and depression amongst workers?

Research shows that the main causes of work-related poor mental health are tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of management support. All things that, with some care and attention, can be rectified fairly easily.

Our understanding of mental health is increasing all the time, but one thing that is known is that if workers are able to strike a good balance between work and home life, then they are able to cope better with the stresses of work. When work pressures skew this balance and it becomes too one-sided, problems really start to occur, creating a sense of loss of control. This is where employers and managers need to be vigilant and open to frank and honest discussions.

Q. What are the signs that someone might be struggling at work?

It can be incredibly hard to spot someone that is suffering from excessive workplace pressures, but there are few key things to watch for. Firstly, if you notice a behavioural change in a colleague or member of your team, be sure to note it, rather than assuming the situation will simply improve – it might not. Also be on the lookout for lethargy, avoidance and a general lack of response, plus increased disengagement from either their work or colleagues. You might see all of these symptoms or none as each case is different. Often people who are struggling try to hide the issues for as long as possible, but these signs are a good place to start.

Q. What solutions and methods can companies use to help counteract these issues?

The answer is: quite a lot. Mental health in the workplace is becoming a more widely talked about subject with plenty of ideas, theories and data to help support both those suffering and those in a leadership capacity.

  • The first thing I would say is, try to lead by example. Show you understand that people react differently in certain situations and that mental health is always treated with the utmost respect. Make sure your door is always open and that all discussions are confidential. The way you handle your work rubs off on your staff. If you are stressed, always working late and on edge, this will filter through to your employees. If you remain calm and approachable, the standard of work will improve, as will mental health levels.
  • Get the conversation about mental health started. For years it was a subject that people didn’t know enough about or were embarrassed by. Thankfully this has improved in recent years. Men in particular often hide the fact that they are overwhelmed and stressed, because they feel that it makes them look weak. This is, of course, not the case, and in fact the acknowledgement and willingness to talk about it amongst men is now better than it has ever been. This must be continued and improved upon as we move forward.
  • Acknowledge that you aren’t able to do it alone. You can’t know the inner workings of every person in your team. You don’t always know people’s personalities and you don’t know if they have been hiding symptoms for years. Create support networks, where everyone working for you looks out for each other. They are the ones who know each other best. Often, these networks are better placed to see if someone is struggling, or whether they have started to show some of the signs listed above. It isn’t always easy to talk to the ‘boss’, but chatting to a colleague/friend might just be what they need to seek help.
  • Improve awareness of mental health in your workplace. Educate your staff on the triggers and encourage them to think about themselves too. Whilst they are looking out for signs amongst colleagues, ask them to take a step back and put the same thought process into their own mental health. Culturally, we often put ourselves last, when we should be concentrating on ourselves first before we can help others.

The final coping method I want to talk about is wellbeing. This subject is becoming an increasingly popular school of thought, with numerous ways of introducing it. Try getting your staff to put something into their diaries that they can look forward to, and that they mustn’t cancel. It might be a trip or an afternoon off, but the feeling of having nothing on the horizon can be bleak, so time to enjoy themselves should be encouraged. You should also have strategies for staying healthy, such as:

  • eating well
  • drinking lots of water
  • exercising regularly
  • managing the working day better
  • breathing techniques
  • meditation (which has been proven to be very effective for men)

There are so many tools at our disposal these days, but you need to remain vigilant to spot those who are most at risk.

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