With workplaces becoming increasingly multi-generational, it is important employers recognise that managing mental ill health requires strategies and interventions tailored to all ages, argues Lisa Gillespie. Using the expertise and leadership of occupational health practitioners will be a key part of this.
Everyone is expected to deal with today’s high-pressure, achievement-focused work environment. Being overwhelmed by workload is the most common reason for feeling stressed, yet stress is an odd thing.
So many feelings can develop into “stress”. Frustration, tiredness, isolation, feeling unable to change things or adapt to change. And it’s when stress starts to spiral out of control that people can develop serious mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.
About the author
Lisa Gillespie is head of learning & development at Make Business, part of the manufacturers’ body Make UK
In 2016, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) calculated that 11.5% of sickness absences were as a result of mental health issues, resulting in 15.8 million days lost. ONS figures for 2017 showed an increase in sickness absence in younger workers aged 25 to 34, rising from 7.2% in 2009 to 9.6% in 2017.
This group of younger workers attributed their growing levels of sickness absence to mental health conditions, something also highlighted by Dame Carol Black within her landmark 2008 report Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, which showed that the younger generation’s mental health issues were on the rise. It also pointed out that there were significant differences between mental health issues between different generations.
The NHS reported in November 2018 that the next generation of workers are is experiencing alarming escalations in mental health issues. And it’s this generation who are now entering the workforce, meaning it is more important than ever that employers – in conjunction with occupational health – are equipped to support those at the beginning of their careers, rather than waiting until problems arise.
At Make UK, we represent UK manufacturing, which is particularly reliant on young people entering the industry but which, as a sector, also has its own unique challenges.
For many employers, the priority from a health and wellbeing perspective is about improving health overall with defined wellbeing strategies, rather than reactively dealing with illness and absence management. When you consider that full-time employees spend one-third of their waking hours in work, the importance of evaluating how their health is managed becomes clear.
Mental health management
So how do you actively manage employee mental health and promote employee wellbeing? To start with, I would argue there are a few low-cost and effective means that are easy to implement, and which OH can be proactively communicating:
- Regular one-to-ones that encourage employees to talk about what would improve their working lives.
- Ensuring employees use their full annual holiday entitlement and take advantage of family-friendly entitlements. Using holiday for non-holiday activities eats into rest time.
- Making sure regular breaks are factored into the working day, particularly for monotonous or repetitive roles.
- Training employees in how to deal with stressful situations.
- Ensuring colleagues and managers treat everyone in a respectful way (and supplying training if needed) and having zero tolerance of bad behaviour from anyone with whom employees interact.
The potentially negative “always on” impact of technology also needs to be recognised and managed within this, with employees proactively encouraged to switch off and not engage with work, especially work emails, outside of working hours. This may require modelling and commitment from managers and senior leadership.
As our workplaces become ever-more multi-generational, it is advisable to tweak your mental health management strategy to each generation within your workforce.
Employees in their 50s and over, for example, will typically be dealing with issues such as chronic physical ill health (which of course can have a significant knock-on on their mental health), divorce and “empty nest” syndrome.
Millennials, by comparison, may be dealing with anxiety brought about by fierce competition in the workplace, social media-related issues such as “FOMO” (fear of missing out), low self-esteem and loneliness, which could lead to anxiety and depression.
However, it’s one thing to know what kind of issues different generations typically deal with, it’s another to understand how people of certain demographics want to be helped.
One thorough way of finding this out is by undertaking an annual stress audit. Stress audits not only enable employers to identify pressure points within an organisation, they also help to pinpoint areas or individuals who may be experiencing stress and help them understand the underlying causes.
An audit can help to identify common issues per age group, gender (for example menopause in your female workforce over 50) and certain job groups.
It will also give you an insight into how these different groups may wish to see their issues tackled. Overall, a stress audit can clarify how to improve both the performance and the wellbeing of your workforce.
So, for millennials for example, a stress audit could very well show a feeling of not being listened to as a cause of stress. This could then indicate a need for more “listening time”, for example in the form of more one-to-ones. It could also indicate the need for more “team time”, in order to combat feelings of loneliness and lack of confidence.
Mental health first aid
Putting in place mental health first aiders can be another proactive, and visible, way to make a difference. However, it is important that employers do not see this as a panacea or a tick box; that it is just one part of a wider mental health strategy. It is also important first aiders themselves have the support they need to deal with and refer on (or indeed step back from) the issues that are being brought to them.
Within this, of course, occupational health, has a key role to play, especially in terms of managing and supporting an individual with mental health issues either to stay in or return to work successfully following a period of absence.
However, it is vital for HR and occupational health to work closely together on mental health issues at work, for it not to be either totally medicalised or all about “performance” rather than health.
Setting the right example
Finally, it is up to the leaders within the organisation to set the right example when it comes to wellbeing.
HR must check that each member of the management community possesses the right skills to deal with mental health issues in their teams (and OH, again, will be a good resource to be leant on in this context). An audit can again show if they truly understand their people’s feelings, and if they possess enough emotional intelligence.
But it is important not to forget than leaders are people too, and that it is important to be ensuring leaders are looking after themselves and their own health, both physical and mental.
Part of this is about encouraging leaders to take a good look at themselves and how they’re living and working. Are they setting the “right” example by sticking to lunch breaks, holidays, not working outside of office hours and so on? Do they have the tools and mechanisms, and support, to manage and be open about their own mental health and wellbeing?
To finish back on a generational note. The younger generations coming through in our workplaces have amazing brains; we need to encourage all that mental energy to focus on progress, not worry or anxiety.
So – employers (and occupational health) – listen to them, as they may often have newer ways and better ideas about how we work. Instil young employees with the confidence to discuss ideas, say “no” or to disagree with more senior colleagues.
Ultimately, an organisation’s positive wellbeing culture will positively affect your people’s mental health.
The top three causes of workplace stress and how to solve them’, Employee Benefits, November 2017, https://employeebenefits.co.uk/top-three-causes-workplace-stress-solve/
Sickness absence in the UK labour market, 2016, Office for National Statistics, March 2017, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2016
‘Sickness absence falls to the lowest rate on record’, Office for National Statistics, July 2018, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/articles/sicknessabsencefallstothelowestratein24years/2018-07-30
‘Working for a Healthier Tomorrow: Dame Carol Black’s Review of the health of Britain’s working age population , March 2008, Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health and Social Care, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/thriving-at-work-a-review-of-mental-health-and-employers
Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2017, NHS England, November 2018, https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2017/2017