The hidden pandemic – why mental health in the workplace matters

Debbie Byers Posted on March 8, 2020 in Blog

There is nothing like a pandemic for focusing our attention on health issues. But even as the Covid-19 virus has come to dominate our lives over recent months, mental health at work remains the elephant in the room.

Sometimes a little context can help. While John Hopkins University recently recorded almost 13 million cases of coronavirus infection worldwide, the World Health Organisation calculates that 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Startling as that figure is, it represents only those afflicted by one particular mental disorder.
Of course, health is not a zero-sum game, and nobody is remotely playing down the seriousness of Covid-19. However, that is exactly what we do when it comes to the impact of mental health problems. Many of us still tend to draw an unfair distinction between mental and physical ill-health – although the two are often closely related – claiming that mental disorders are not fatal in the same way as say, a virus, a cancer or a traumatic injury.

So, it may come as a shock to learn that people with poor mental health die, on average, 20 years earlier than the rest of the population. One in three of the avoidable deaths that occur every year in the UK involve people suffering from poor mental health. Every forty seconds, someone commits suicide. There is nothing trivial about stress and unhappiness at work: it seriously affects our health, our relationships and our life expectancy.

Yet, many of us still equate mental illness with weakness. We can’t frame it in our minds the way we can with a broken leg or a nasty bout of flu, even if the long-term impact can be much more damaging.

The health and wealth of nations

And just as Covid-19 is having a devastating effect on public health, society and the economy, so too does poor mental health in the workplace. According to the World Bank, the global economy loses around $1 trillion every year in productivity as a result of depression and anxiety. A report for the Mayor of London revealed that the UK capital alone lost £26 billion a year as a result of the social and economic costs of poor mental health. Some 300,000 people having to leave their jobs each year due to a mental health problem.

Sadly, one in four of us can expect to experience poor mental health at some point in our lives with one in six of us affected at any one time. It’s perhaps no coincidence that more than one in four Americans report feeling “super-stressed” at work. Meanwhile, one in six British workers are struggling to cope with stress, anxiety or depression at any one time.

It’s a frightening statistic, and yet the vast majority of organisations have put nothing in place to support those employees affected. In fact, practices and behaviours in many modern workplaces could have been created explicitly to undermine mental health: excessive workloads and impossible targets; rigidly inflexible terms and conditions; hazardous environments; poor communication and strict ‘them and us’ hierarchies; lack of dispute resolution procedures; harassment, bullying and discrimination; intrusive surveillance, monitoring and inflexibility­­.

Taking all that into consideration, it’s little wonder that we are seeing increasingly greater instances of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, insomnia and other mental health disorders.

Where’s your head at?

The signs of poor mental health in the workplace are many: declining standards of work; lack of concentration and forgetfulness; low mood; and a short fuse with colleagues. Stress and burnout are becoming more and more common. Paradoxically, both absenteeism and presenteeism – feeling pressurised to work when you are unwell – are growing. But they are just two symptoms of toxic workplace cultures that can undermine mental health.

Increased use of communications technology is preventing people from switching off when they leave the office. Instead they merely carry around their always-on, 24/7 connectivity to the workplace with them when they commute and when they are home.

Despite progress in recent years, mental health remains a taboo subject. If it isn’t quite as stigmatised as it was a generation ago, we are nevertheless still engaged in a conspiracy of denial: mental health problems are now the leading cause of absence from the workplace yet we shy away from it.

Many more people are happier discussing their sexual or financial problems than their mental health issues. Indeed, 95% of those taking time off from work because of stress admit to giving a different reason to their boss rather than admit they are struggling to cope.

The great lockdown mental health experiment

All this has been thrown into sharp focus by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has constituted the biggest real-time workplace mental health experiment in history. At the height of the lockdown two in five people in the workforce were home working while a third were furloughed or on universal credit.

Lockdown and social distancing could have been specifically designed to stress-test employees’ mental health to the maximum. In a matter of days, with hardly any warning, they were plunged into strange and unfamiliar working patterns, worries about their health and future employment prospects, and a need to simultaneously juggle their roles as parents, carers and professionals. A major ONS survey picked up a huge spike in the numbers of people suffering from high anxiety: it leapt from 21% at the end of 2019 to half of the entire population in the first full week of lockdown at the end of March.

However, the experience of lockdown was also revelatory in a positive way: perhaps counterintuitively, many reported feeling a stronger connection, more equality and more humanity in their dealings with teams and leaders. Bonds were made over Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack as everyone got a chance to step out from being labels, roles and job functions to all being human. The informality of seeing each other’s homes, even with impromptu video walk-ons from family members, removed a lot of the artifice of the office environment, the hierarchies, the politics and small talk as well as the stressful commute.

So, lockdown was stressful, inducing anxiety and depression in many, but the return to work is ratcheting up the stress levels. Many people – introverts, those on the autistic spectrum and those jugging caring and professional roles – have reported that they found lockdown to be almost a release.

Reasons to be cheerful

However, one of the unexpected benefits of COVID-19, amid the misery and disruption, has been to put employee well-being and workplace culture at the top of the organisational agenda.

Forward thinking companies are embracing the idea of psychological safety and good mental health. It’s good for the individual but it’s also good for the company. There’s nothing new about this: David Owen demonstrated the benefits of treating your employees well and looking after them at his New Lanark cotton mills at the dawn of the First Industrial Revolution. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, David Owen’s successors are bearing those lessons in mind and adapting them, showing that you can do well by doing good for your team.

That ethos is embodied by the inspirational example of Bob Chapman at US manufacturing business, The Barry Wehmiller Group. His philosophy is simple, caring and phenomenally successful: create a workplace culture that truly values and cares for employees and the rest of the transformation will take care of itself. His recipe for employee mental and business outperformance is encapsulated in the title of his best-selling book Everybody Matters. Looking after your people also looks after the bottom line: Barry Wehmiller has achieved 18% compound revenue growth since 1987 and is worth $2.8 billion.

Chapman was an early innovator, but more and more companies are recognising the vital importance of employee mental health and wellbeing. What’s more they are taking positive action to improve and nurture it.

Good guys do finish first

Global consultancy firm, PwC, has been at the forefront of this movement since it launched its Green Light to Talk campaign during Mental Health Awareness Week in 2016. Its aim was to destigmatise mental health and, now in its fifth year, it has enjoyed incredible results. As Laura Hinton, PwC’s Chief People Officer puts it: “The Green Light to Talk campaign empowers our people to speak up when they need help. Normalising conversations about mental health is good for our people, and for our business.”

PwC is far from being alone. Companies as diverse as EY and Innocent, Accenture and Unilever are all actively championing mental health in the workplace. Late last year, 30 major organisations – from Barclays and the Royal Mail to John Lewis – signed up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment, a framework of six core standards that aim to create working environments in which people can thrive.

And there is no shortage of powerful campaigns to destigmatise mental health issues and improve understanding: From Heads Together, to the Lord Mayor of London’s This Is Me initiative, the barriers are gradually being broken down and tangible results are being delivered. More than 800 organisations have now signed up to This Is Me, with 92% reporting that their employees now felt much more empowered to talk about mental health issues as a result.

The workforce doesn’t really want much: to stay healthy, pay the bills and enjoy a little job satisfaction.

Even if only from the perspective of enlightened self-interest, it makes sense for employers to look after the mental health of their staff: a healthy, happy, engaged and motivated workforce is going to be much more productive and competitive, generating better sales and profits than those who are miserable and ill.

The pandemic has shown us that we can make massive changes quickly and effectively: Evidence of the possible new normal is everywhere but it is epitomised by the announcement from Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, that all his employees could continue to work from home forever.

That can work for some, but as the world gradually returns to work in a changed post-pandemic landscape, there is a unique opportunity to start afresh and build back better in terms of mental health in the workplace.

Be the solution, not the problem

At Speaker Buzz, we are committed to being part of that positive change. Our expert speakers are passionate about helping organisations and individuals to make a genuine difference.

If we were asked to recommend one single, vital step that could make a transformative difference to organisations it would be to break the taboo and the stigma by speaking openly about it and normalising it. Passionate and effective speakers are a great catalyst for starting conversations that can change lives. Their talks give companies the permission to address issues that they may previously have been uncomfortable topics for them.

Gail Porter, the television presenter and model, knows all about workplace mental health. At the height of her successful career, she was suffering from anxiety, depression and anorexia that ultimately led to alopecia, self-harm, divorce and homelessness.

She bravely shares her experiences, helping individuals become more resilient and guiding organisations on how they can support those experiencing such problems.

JoJo Fraser, the inspirational author and podcaster, is committed to smashing the enduring stigma around mental health at work. She has a simple but compelling vision of making it normal to talk openly about mental health and our struggles.

Alister Gray, founder of Mindful Talent, is a champion of conscious capitalism which promotes looking after your workforce and doing good. He helps many companies and their employees – including Google, Nike and Dropbox among others – to break through their self-limiting beliefs and realise their potential. He is passionate about helping others to lead a happier, healthier life through the practice of mindfulness

These are real, desirable and achievable objectives. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that kindness and empathy are perhaps our greatest strengths as a community, whether in our homes, in our neighbourhoods or in the workplace. Let’s take the opportunity to improve our mental health as part of staying safe. That way we will open the doors not merely to surviving but to thriving.

Managers who provide clear objectives, feedback and support to their staff and proactively manage conflict when it occurs can help to create positive working environments which foster employee well-being and resilience.

To learn more about how Speaker Buzz can support your organisation in making a real
difference to workplace mental health, contact us

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