Some of the biggest issues that affect employee wellbeing are dismissed as ‘too difficult’. Kate Field looks at what new guidance says about addressing work-related mental health risks.
As we emerged from the pandemic, employees screamed their dissatisfaction at being unappreciated and uncared for with a tsunami of resignations. Less than a year later, with looming fears of a recession and the job insecurity that comes with it, the action against unjust, unfair, and unfit workplaces is not as noisy, but it is just as concerning.
For many organisations, employee engagement is at an all-time low, while wellbeing budgets are at an all-time high – so what’s going wrong?
Employers are failing to tackle the fundamental issues that affect employee wellbeing and engagement. The C-suite has become obsessed with the results of employee engagement surveys, but this has led to an approach that undermines the very thing many organisations are trying to achieve.
The actions that are taken following these surveys are focused on quick wins to move the needle – turning the ‘grey’ zones to ‘green’ rather than tackling big areas of ‘red’. A ‘grey’ concern about career development can be tackled by a quick promotion of existing e-learning, but addessing ‘red’ issues around feeling overworked or improving leadership gets parked as “too difficult“, or worse, ignored as “whingeing”. But excessive workload and poor leadership are systemic issues and don’t go away. If ignored, they become work-related stress, anxiety and depression.
Work-related mental ill health is rising
According to the latest data from the Health and Safety Executive, work-related mental ill health is on the rise. In 2018/19, 602,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety, but by 2020/21 that number had risen to 822,000. That’s a jump of 38%.
Work-related mental health
Yes, of course the pandemic had an impact, and the looming recession will add to that, but these systemic issues, technically referred to as “psychosocial risks”, are at the heart of the problem and organisations have failed to address them. Much of this failure is caught up in misconceptions, stigma and fear associated with mental-ill health on the one side; and misconceptions, inertia and lack of competency around psychosocial risks on the other.
To tackle this, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently published their first-ever global guidelines on mental health and work, which aim to inform organisations about ensuring safe and supportive working conditions that promote mental health.
Set as a policy brief aimed at national and workplace policy-makers, such as governments, employers, workers and their representatives, the guidance sets out an approach of: prevent; protect and promote; and support, underpinned by an “enabling environment”.
Mental health apps unlikely to be effective alone
It starts with ‘prevent’. Prevention is squarely focused on dealing with the psychosocial risks that cause work-related mental ill health. No longer is it acceptable to place the onus on the individual, thinking that some resilience training and mindfulness apps will be enough to meet the employer’s duty of care. In fact, the limitations of digital self-help tools are explicitly called out in the guidance: “a focus on individual stress management [with digital self-help tools] is unlikely to be effective on its own; critically, it can wrongly make people feel it is their own fault for experiencing understandable stress in response to difficult work circumstances”.
No longer is it acceptable to place the onus on the individual, thinking that some resilience training and mindfulness apps will be enough to meet the employer’s duty of care.
The approach to prevention in the guidance is to use established risk management frameworks, by embedding psychosocial risk management into existing occupational health and safety management systems “not as an optional add-on but as essential element”. For organisations wondering what this means and how to do it, ISO 45003 on psychological health and safety management sets this out step by step.
In fact, the WHO/ILO guidance approach is known as “Plan, Do, Check, Act” in corporate risk management. This is important, as it underscores that work-related mental-ill health should be fully integrated into all aspects of corporate risk; it is not simply some tick box activities to help with EVP.
Once the work-related causes of mental ill-health are tackled, then organisations can move onto protecting and promoting mental health. This starts with manager training, recognising that the manager plays a crucial role in risk creation and risk mitigation – that is to say that poor line management can give rise to psychosocial risks, and good line management can prevent them. However, the training goes beyond this – it is also about fostering the right environment to help and support those with mental-ill health conditions that are not work-related.
It is the lack of awareness and knowledge of organisation’s leaders that have contributed to the stereotypes and fear around mental ill health. Encouraging more open conversations creates opportunities for learning and understanding. Everyone within an organisation will need to adopt a new attitude and approach towards mental health to ensure that it is continuously promoted and protected, so that we really see mental health taken seriously.
Hopefully, these new guidelines will influence new and further developments around mental health across industries, promoting awareness and driving the need for change. Although there is some way to go, the new WHO and ILO guidelines, along with ISO 45003, are a great step towards where we need to be.