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Beyond stress: Why employers must try harder

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StressWith many British companies facing financial meltdown, mental health at work might not seem like a high priority, but there are some simple and inexpensive steps that employers can take to address this growing problem, says Williams Johnson.


There is a strong correlation between economic downturn, and substance abuse, depression and even suicide, say mental health experts. The implications of this were recently witnessed by the tragedy of former soldier William Foxton, who shot himself in a Southampton park after losing his life savings in the Madoff fraud case.

The Guardian newspaper recently highlighted ‘square mile syndrome’, the term used to describe stress-related mental health problems faced by City bankers and hedge fund managers, many of whom are facing redundancy and possibly a dramatic downsizing in lifestyle. One nearby private London clinic has reported a 33% increase in patients seeking help for drugs and alcohol-related problems, which under current pressures have tipped into full-blown dependency.

“The downturn is set to trigger a 26% rise in mental health problems.”

And it isn’t just financial high-flyers who are at risk. The downturn is set to trigger a 26% rise in mental health problems, affecting more than 1.5 million people in the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation. This statistic should be worrying enough on its own, but when you realise that already three in 10 employees suffer from some form of mental health condition, predominantly anxiety, panic attacks and depression in any one year, then you begin to get an idea of the scale of the problem.

Don’t underestimate mental health

Mental health in the workforce is largely unacknowledged, underestimated and unaddressed by employers, 45% of whom chose to believe that it does not exist, according to the findings of our recent joint survey with the Employers’ Forum on Disability. But their investors might not be quite so impressed once they grasp that mental health issues at work are costing British businesses £26m a year – more than £1,000 per employee. Taking mental health seriously is not just a moral imperative – it also makes compelling, economic sense.

If that’s not enough to stir you to action, then the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) just might. The agency, which regards stress as the most dangerous risk to business in the early part of the 21st century, is placing greater emphasis on policing mental health issues in both the public and private sector. “It is apparent there is a problem right across the UK workplace,” warns Tony Almond of the HSE.

Less than one in 10 companies surveyed by Great Place to Work® Institute has any form of mental health policy in place and only 14% of those who do, believe it is any good. Yet the advantages of a strong mental health policy are self-evident. It demonstrates that you are a caring and compassionate employer, committed to your staff’s well-being. It ensures:

  • Better recruitment and retention

  • Reduced recruitment and training costs

  • Improved productivity

  • Better legal compliance

  • Reduced sickness levels

  • Happier working environments

  • Better customer service

  • Greater loyalty

So what should good employers be doing to improve the mental well-being of their employees? We urge companies to adopt the following five-step plan:

  • Take effective management control of the workplace

  • Undertake an audit of the workplace to identify potential stressors, such as unrealistic workloads and schedules

  • Train line managers in mental health awareness, most of whom our survey showed substantially underestimate its prevalence

  • Launch a preventative and effective mental health promotion campaign – something that has already been successfully implemented by BT Plc

  • Audit absences and make sure you understand the reasons behind them

Effective management control of the workplace

Boardrooms should place mental health at the heart of risk management policy. They not only have a clear legal duty to do so, but also a moral obligation as well. They need to ensure that a coherent mental health strategy is developed and that a senior executive is responsible for its implementation. A clear evaluation process also needs to be periodically undertaken to ensure its overall effectiveness.

An audit of workplace stressors

Managers need to ensure that workloads are reasonable and resources adequate. Team workloads need to be monitored on a regular basis and additional work should be refused if teams are already under undue pressure. Processes also need to be reviewed to see if work and job roles can be improved. Employees also need to be allowed sufficient self-determination, which might involve more team meetings and consultation as well as more training and career advancement opportunities. Simple adjustments, such as less abuse and more consideration might be considered. A simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done, goes a long way. Any audit of the working environment should be a two-way process, including detailed surveys of staff views.

“A simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done, goes a long way.”

Line manager training

Line managers are crucial to the successful implementation of mental health strategies, and training with coaching follow up should be considered. Any training should include specific examples of behaviour which may indicate mental health problems such as declining or inconsistent performance, lack of motivation and frequent absences. Conversely managers need to be made specifically aware of how their own behaviours can negatively impact on staff well-being. For further information please go to www.hse.gov.uk or www.cipd.co.uk.

Prevention is the best approach

Show staff that you take their mental well-being seriously. Follow the example set by companies such as BT, in setting up an internal website to provide information about mental health issues and how to avoid them. Make sure that all staff are aware that you have a mental health policy and that any prejudice against those with such problems will not be tolerated.

Monitor absences

High rates of absenteeism are a sure sign that something is wrong with your organisation. It not only costs you money as an employer, but can damage your reputation with customers and the wider public. Reasons behind high absentee rates can include:

  • Boring and monotonous work

  • Job insecurity

  • Lack of self-determination or control

  • Lack of fairness at work

  • Lack of proper compensation

  • Too much change at work

Managers need to monitor absences more effectively and make sure that they fully understand the reasons behind it. They also need to manage sickness absences when they occur. In particular, they should be able to identify any unusual pattern of absences, or where absences reflect pattern in gender, age, occupation or specific job or location. There should also be overall accountability for collating and interpreting this information at board level.

All the above does not involve employers investing excessive sums of money during times of economic difficulty. They do require a small degree of effort and commitment, but they should form a vital part of every good employer’s risk management process.

Concern for employees’ welfare is a vital component of inspiring leadership. Sincere demonstration of it in these turbulent times will pay handsome dividends and might just help to safeguard long-term survival.


Williams Johnson is commercial manager of Great Place to Work® Institute, which has produced Best Workplace lists in 40 countries throughout the world, covering more than 1.2 million employees in 4,000 major companies. The institute is planning its first ever global list.


Throughout April, HRZone.co.uk will be looking at employee health and wellbeing and how it has risen to the top of the agenda in the current economic climate – keep an eye out for a whole host of articles on this important topic.

One Response

  1. Non-work related stress
    Accepting all the comments and helpful suggestions about workplace stress, what about the employees who are suffering from non-workplace related stress? I would really appreciate some helpful comments about those employees who come to me with mental health problems that have absolutely nothing to do with their workplace or job, but everything to do with out-of-work problems eg family/health/finances/bereavement etc. I have one employee who has suffered depression at differing levels for several months now with frequent absence but refuses counselling offered by his GP, refuses to contact the confidential (3rd party) helpline we offer, or do anything else to help himself.

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