Comp & Bens | Releasing the pressure

Releasing the pressure

Releasing the pressure

Are businesses practising what they preach around mental health?

Words by Daniel Jones | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Daniel Cave

Design by Matt Bonnar

Psychological wellbeing has been moving further and further up the corporate agenda over the past five years or so – and 2019 is proving no exception.

On the surface, much of the debate has centred around removing stigma around the subject. Mental health and stress-related disorders were often swept under the carpet, and it’s only in recent years that the psychological side of employee health has been given equal weight alongside the physical.

The stats alone tell the story. It’s now common knowledge that stress-related illness has overtaken musculoskeletal problems as the leading cause of long-term sickness absence in the UK. According to the latest HSE study, 15.4 million working days were lost due to stress-related illnesses in 2018. That’s works out to a 20% increase in days lost compared with 2017 (12.5 million days). HSE also revealed that one in four people in the UK will report a mental health issue at some point during their working life.

All industries and sectors are being affected - though higher rates are reported across professional services, administrative work and social welfare. No matter the size or sector, businesses cannot afford to ignore the potential disruption to day-to-day operations, productivity and employee caused by chronic stress and anxiety disorders. It’s not enough to preach the values of positive mental health; action is needed to address the issue and embed positive behaviours within the very fabric of an organisation.

Understanding pressure

“The first step for employers wanting to tackle the problem is understanding the difference between stress and pressure,” explains Sir Cary Cooper, Professor or Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester. “Pressure is a key part of employee motivation and performance. It’s only when pressure starts to outweigh a person’s ability to cope that we begin to see problems with stress and employee burnout.

“When you realise that 57% of all sickness absence in 2018 was down to stress, anxiety and depression, it’s obvious that employers have a huge duty to care for the mental health of their people. It’s also in the interest of productivity. Getting the right managers in place will help create a culture that doesn’t allow pressure to become excessive. We need to keep the dialogue going and make it acceptable to discuss mental health in the workplace. That will help provide a support network for those who aren’t coping well and remove any stigma around the issue.”

The key to culture

Building a workplace culture that encourages engagement and emotional resilience among staff doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to get right. It’s down to employers to keep a close eye on both the triggers of stress and the drivers of wellbeing if they are to maintain a positive working environment.

“Pressure is a key part of employee motivation and performance. It’s only when pressure starts to outweigh a person’s ability to cope that we begin to see problems with stress and employee burnout.”

Control over individual workload is a major factor. Lack of autonomy and micromanagement can easily lead to chronic stress if left unchecked over the course of weeks, months, and years. People need to feel trusted to do their job in a way that plays to their strengths, which also why we’re seeing a big shift towards flexible and remote working. If an employee feels chained to their desk and unable to align their work with family and personal commitments there’s a much higher chance they will feel continually stressed out.

Staff also need access to the right resources to do their job well. Little things like updating office technology or keeping the printer stocked with paper can chip away at our mental wellbeing, as can a lack of training opportunities in the longer term. It’s the people that don’t feel their organisation is willing to invest in their personal development that soon become disengaged and unaligned with the company mission.

Taking the initiative

Discussion is all well and good of course; yet talking comes to nothing unless action is taken, teams grow closer together and behaviours are given a chance to change. Global recruitment firm Robert Walters Group are one such firm doing just that, recently announcing plans for a new worldwide wellbeing initiative – #BreakTheCycle.

“We are in the business of helping companies recruit and retain valued employees and so it only feels right to address this issue at home first,” says Giles Daubeney, Chief Operating Officer at Robert Walters. “The onus is really on the employer to introduce initiatives that encourage wellbeing. This includes raising awareness of the role employees play in each other’s wellbeing and encouraging staff to connect with and check in on their fellow colleagues.

“So, with that in mind, this year over 4,000 employees at the Robert Walters Group will be challenged to #BreakTheCycle and do something fun, active, meaningful and inclusive with colleagues – with the goal of improving wellbeing and checking in on peers. Helping to set the benchmark will be the Hairy Handlebars team and their 6,000-mile cycle from Robert Walters Group London HQ to their offices in Tokyo – all in aid of men’s health charity Movember.”

Of course, not all initiatives need to be rolled out on such a scale. Smaller businesses would do well to encourage positive behaviours around mental health at work and start finding out in which specific areas staff need support, whether in work or at home. This is the only way to protect performance, productivity and the most valuable asset available to any company – their people.