Mental health in the work place: Is it getting worse?

employee mental burnout

The state of mental health among employees in the UK has deteriorated, according to a People Management survey of HR professionals. And it claims organisations’ efforts to tackle stress, depression and associated conditions may be missing the mark.

First, the statistics: almost half (43 per cent) of the 391 readers polled for a focus on mental health issues in PM’s July issue felt that the overall level of mental well-being among their staff had actually got worse over the past two years. Only 15 per cent felt it had got better, while 51 per cent reported the number of working days lost to mental health issues had increased over the same period.

The findings suggest that organisations are still struggling to tackle the root causes of mental ill-health among their employees.

‘I thought we’d see reported mental health problems falling by now,’ said Dr Jill Miller, research advisor for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. (CIPD) And she added that the broader CIPD Absence Management Survey backs up this worrying trend. The CIPD’s figures show a constant climb in reported mental ill-health issues every year since 2010.

Miller believes increased willingness to talk about mental ill-health is a factor in this story – 45 per cent of People Management respondents said staff were more likely to open up than two years ago. And she also believes there are wider economic issues to be considered in relation to stress. But despite these mitigating factors, she still believes that organisational efforts to tackle the issue are clearly failing.

What support is on offer? All those polled offered some kind of formal support to those with mental health issues, from phased returns to work (reported by 95 per cent) to work assessments (88 per cent) and occupational health (87 per cent).

‘Organisations might provide good well-being benefits, but employees might not know about them or be aware of how to access them,’ said Miller. ‘When it comes to counselling, for example, it can be difficult to ask about it.’

‘Workload is key,’ she says. ‘It’s the number one cause of work-related stress – and presenteeism’ – (the sense that you must be at work even if you’re not feeling well, for fear of losing your job, imposing on others) – ‘remains quite high. Our recent Employee Outlook Survey said people didn’t want colleagues to have to pick up their work, or to just come back to more work themselves the next day.’

Stress – which is reported in 88 per cent of organisations – is followed by depression (85 per cent) and anxiety (83 per cent) as the most common manifestation of mental ill-health.

It’s a finding that’s familiar for confectionery giant Mars, which began to see higher levels of mental-health-related absence in its sales force in late 2011.

‘We were in recession, the external sales environment was tough and this was causing tensions at home,’ said Julie Digby from the company. ‘We introduced resilience workshops to help people cope with the changing world, identify the sources of their stress and suggested coping mechanisms to give them a greater sense of control.’

A year later, mental health-related absence had almost disappeared and employees not only reported better sleep and reduced anxiety but also improved work performance and productivity.

According to Miller, however, this kind of holistic approach to the topic is rare.

‘For HR, the question has to be whether well-being is part of your people approach or a bolt-on,’ she said.

‘Think creatively about how you manage different demands inside and outside work, about recruitment, job design and the type of decisions people are asked to make in the business.’

The Mind Clinic works with creative employers who want to get beyond the bolt-on mentality, which Jill Miller refers to; and who wish to think in fresh ways about employee wellbeing.

We offer both on-site counselling as part of the organisation’s wellbeing package to staff, as well as Resilience Now for Leaders and Managers and Mindfulness days.

If you wish to talk about your needs please make contact.