Life is busy, and this is especially true in our modern workplaces. Despite the rise of technology, we have seen no corresponding decrease in our working hours. In fact, the trend seems to continue ever upward.
According to a report by TUC in 2016, almost four million employees are working at least 48 hours a week, 350,000 more than a decade ago. We know that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But do we really appreciate that it also makes Jack a tired, stressed and anxious person who is also three times more likely to suffer from mental health issues?
Long hours and work overload can have a detrimental effect on our mental wellbeing. This is a widely known fact and yet we seem to have little in place by way of support in the workplace to address this.
Anxiety at work
One mental health condition that seems to be on the rise, and is also frequently misunderstood or underestimated, is anxiety. We have all felt anxious at some point, so we often use this as our touchstone when hearing that someone suffers from anxiety.
But it is a condition that is far more debilitating than what a person experiences when they feel a bit anxious. The causes are linked to past traumas or difficulties that are unresolved and, in some cases, may be linked to genetics.
Workplace pressure can be a trigger for anxiety attacks, as can other issues such as bullying. On an everyday level this might result in troubling panic attacks, which in milder cases and with the right support provided could be recovered from relatively quickly and become less severe over time.
Severe anxiety, however, may render the person immobile, unable to function and needing to withdraw completely from the world. At this stage, professional help is needed, as the sympathetic nervous system that regulates our ‘flight or fight’ response has gone into overdrive, causing very real physical challenges for the person.
Who can people with anxiety reach out to?
Most workplaces have a welfare line, so if someone is struggling, they should be made aware that there is someone they can call and talk to confidentially. HR are also an obvious resource for struggling colleagues, but there is of course a fine line between being supportive and turning into the agony aunt.
Employees are also perhaps wary of opening up to HR, as they will see the function as linked to promotion and performance decisions. They may not want to expose a perceived weakness to the HR business partner, even if this is someone they would see and chat with regularly at any other time.
The false perception that having a mental health problem means you have a weakness might also be a reason why the affected person finds it difficult to ask for help from their boss; or perhaps the boss does not invite such conversations.
This leaves very few options and many choose to suffer in silence until their condition tips over into the extreme form, which by that stage is probably affecting their performance at work.
How can employers create a more supportive wellbeing culture?
Here are seven simple actions that employers can take to help ensure their workplace isn't exacerbating employees' mental health issues:
Proactively support employees: If we seek to raise awareness and provide education and support well before someone is presenting with the symptoms, we are likely to be able to give much better response at the time of need.
Run mental health awareness campaigns: Having forums that discuss stress and its symptoms can help people who are struggling to feel more at ease with talking about their issues and make the rest of your employees more sympathetic to their needs.
Address the long hours culture: If you have people who must work late on a regular basis then your workforce planning may need to be revisited. The odd evening here and there is expected in all jobs, but when it becomes the norm, it’s a sign that the company does not have enough people or skills. Ignoring that fact could mean you are abusing your employees’ goodwill, which along with potential mental health issues, can also result in poor performance, absence and attrition.
Have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying: This is one of the big drivers for stress in the workplace and if you have sensitive or anxious workers, they are likely to tip over into anxiety if they are being bullied. In fact, everyone loses if bullying is tolerated, so make sure that from the top down this is made unacceptable.
Introduce healthy practices such as mindfulness: Try offering drop-in mindfulness sessions in mornings and at lunch times. These can be from a volunteer who already practices mindfulness and would be happy to run regular sessions, or you could bring in a partner that specialises in it
Focus on areas that contribute to wellbeing: This includes healthy food choices (including what you serve in your own canteen), healthy snacks, regular desk breaks, workstations for standing and sitting, regular walking groups etc. The list is endless, but what we know about mental health is that it is linked to our lifestyle and that includes choices about what we eat, how we move and how we work.
Encourage volunteering: This could be getting involved with a local choir or supporting a local community activity. We know that people who are suffering from stress or mental illness do better when they can take themselves outside of their own head and anxious thoughts. By focusing on something more pleasant, or helping someone who is in more need, we are taken out of our own thoughts and concerns, which has a positive impact on everyone.
The best way to avoid having mental health issues in our workforce is to turn our culture into a mental wellbeing oasis. We don’t have to have lots of therapists and de-stress rooms to do this, we can take simple steps, like the ones above, that all add up to a big difference.
Mary McGuire holds an MBA and an MSc in Human Resources and is Chartered Fellow of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Her first book ‘Coming Home to You’ covers many life themes including meaningful work, mindfulness and wellbeing and is available on Amazon and through www.findyourjoyfullife.com.