Leaders must change the culture on mental health at work

Momentum is growing to make employers’ take responsibility to tackle the problem of mental health at work, not least from the Government. Adrian Wakeling, senior policy adviser at work experts Acas, shares employers’ tips on how to manage the issue, gleaned from recent workshops. 

More than 100,000 of the one million calls to the helpline of workplace experts Acas concern “absence, sickness and stress”, and a recent analysis of some of these calls is revealing.

Many of the calls come from employees suffering from a problem related to mental health at work, such as someone who was stressed out about working extra hours in the police service. Other similar calls came from an employee off work from a job in an abattoir, an employee suffering intimidation in a dental practice and another worker who was stressed out on the building site.

The calls, along with a recent workshop Acas held with employers on how they promote wellbeing at work, tells us that:

  1. The triggers for stress and mental health problems at work can range from misunderstandings over disciplinary processes and lack of management regard for workplace behaviour, through to poor management of change and lack of awareness of mental illness.
  2. Effective attendance management is critical to the wellbeing of all employees, but particularly vital to help those with disabilities to stay in work and thrive.
  3. Although over-used and seldom understood, “organisational culture” (that is values that are acted upon and mean something) crops up in most conversations with employers and unions about how to promote employee wellbeing.

The Government is currently asking for views on its plans to tackle the disability employment gap (the gap between those in work without a disability, 80%, and those in work with a disability, 43%). Their Green Paper, “Improving Lives“, makes it clear that mental health is the greatest single cause of disability in the UK.

So why is mental health at work still far from being widely accepted and understood? Take this example from our helpline, where one employer said of a member of their staff: “She hasn’t got a disability as such, it’s just the mental health issues”. Irrespective of the diagnosis or correct definitions, perhaps the word “just” is the worst part of that sentence.

She hasn’t got a disability as such, it’s just the mental health issues”

But lack of awareness is not just confined to mental health problems. Many employers to our helpline re-enforced Acas’ recent research on Managing neurodiversity at work, which found that there is a lot of awareness raising needed around neuro-diverse conditions such as autism and Asperger’s. More than one employee rang the helpline to ask what support they could expect when they disclosed their condition to their manager.

An Acas workshop, held in Nottingham with the support of the Department for Work and Pensions, highlighted tips from employers on how to recruit and keep disabled staff in work. Unsurprisingly, many of these relate to absence management policies such as:

  • the importance of timely and empathetic return to work interviews;
  • regular contact while off sick, although this works best if agreed upon between the employee and their managers;
  • workplace adjustments – there are many myths about the supposed cost and effort needed to make adjustments, but in reality these do not have to be expensive;
  • creating the right culture to encourage employees to tell an employer about a health condition can lead to better support and opportunities for those concerned.

If, as our helpline analysis shows, some individual employees are having to “drag themselves into work” and feel they can “barely cope”, then we clearly still have a long way to go to understand mental health at work.

But Acas research published last year, The Management of Mental Health at Work, found that it is not just individuals who suffer from anxiety and stress. There are some common workplace issues that can lead to the creation of what we have termed “anxious organisations”.

Anxious organisations are workplaces where an employee’s health and wellbeing is not likely to be protected (let alone promoted). These organisations may be characterised by the following:

  • An ongoing struggle to effectively manage change. This may be change imposed by external factors but it leaves people with an uncomfortable sense of “what happens next?”.
  • An increasing pressure to perform better. This is not about positive stimulation that energises people, but a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope.
  • A management culture that mirrors the anxiety rather than contains it. This is caused by a lack of interpersonal skills, particularly the ability to show empathy and to listen. Effective training in handling difficult conversations can help.

The big question is: if you feel you work or manage in an “anxious organisation”, what should you do?

The first and best starting point is to talk. It is not just individuals who need to talk to each other about mental health. Leaders at all levels need to start putting it on the agenda of some of those numerous meetings they attend. “Change the culture” would act as a suitable aide memoir.

One Response to Leaders must change the culture on mental health at work

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    Mark Holt-Rogers 9 Mar 2018 at 6:33 am #

    Another great article. Public awareness on mental health is increasing, organisations are focusing attention on sustainable strategies. We have been working in organisations since 2003 and the momentum is changing.

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