Mental Health and well-being in UK organisations: managers are feeling the strain, and it’s getting tougher

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November 27th, 2019

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Carol Hatcher and Arlene Egan

Founded in 1946, Roffey Park Institute’s origins lie in improving the health and wellbeing of people at work. Since then health and wellbeing at work has grown in importance and whilst improvements have been made, there is still much more than can be done.

Against a prevailing climate of social, economic and political upheaval it is clear from the Management Agenda 2019 survey that managers from the UK and Ireland are feeling the strain more than ever. Almost half (45 per cent) of our respondents are experiencing increased levels of workplace stress as they continue to try to ‘do more with less’. As this ongoing period of rapid change and disruption is unlikely to abate any time soon, we question the role of organisations in the UK and Ireland in supporting their employees’ mental health and well-being.

When it comes to seeking help who do people turn to?

Our survey suggests that while the majority of respondents in our survey (73%) perceive work-related health and wellbeing issues to be on the increase, overall organisational cultures in the UK and Ireland are open and accepting of these types of issues. Respondents reported that they feel they can talk to people within their organisation about their mental health and our survey found that there is a significantly greater chance of turning to a colleague rather than a manager for support in these instances.

It’s encouraging to see the data reflect positively an openness to discussing these types of issues, but only half of respondents reported that adequate support from their organisation or colleagues is available.  We know that taking the first step to ask for support or help is often a vital one, so developing organisational cultures and environments into positive, open, inclusive spaces where wellness should be a priority.

What support is being offered – and what’s working?

Our data shows that there are two clear forms of support that employees feel are most effective in their workplace: Employee Assistance Programmes[1] and Amended Working Practices or reasonable adjustments[2]. Employers offering either of these, or indeed offering any of a range of support mechanisms, are signalling their awareness of the benefits of supporting those with mental health issues. And the business benefits are clear; reduction in sickness absence, greater engagement and productivity and reduced staff turnover, meaning less recruitment and the associated costs. Evidence shows that work can be extremely beneficial for good mental health and can aid recovery by offering routine, purpose, social contacts and increased self-esteem. (source: Mental Health Foundation)

Perhaps most striking however, is the percentage of people who report that their employer offers no form of support at all. In the private sector, this amounts to almost one quarter (24.4 per cent) of respondents. Given the clear link between good work and good mental health this would appear to be an alarming oversight.

A closer examination of the data confirms our conjecture that the problem is worse in smaller organisations; one third (33 per cent) of managers from firms having between one and ten employees feel there’s nothing in place at all should a work-related mental health issue arise. Encouragingly though, mental health charities appear to be addressing this omission by stepping into the breach themselves. Mind, for example, have recently developed free online mental health training aimed at small businesses, and we would expect to see more of the same becoming widely available as mental health is increasingly part of everyday conversations in UK workplaces.

How much time is spent supporting people with mental health related issues at work?

Although there are clear initiatives offered to help individuals manage their mental health and wellness, our survey found that the majority of respondents (45%), report spending 1 – 8 hours per month engaged in supporting staff with mental health challenges, regardless of the size of the organisation. Echoing this point made above, 39% report spending no time at all supporting mental health related issues at work. This raises the question; how is mental health perceived within organisations where little time is being given to support staff? In a 2019 article the Irish Times reports that over the past 5 years the number of organisations offering mental health and wellness programmes to employees has doubled. Does this mean that individuals needs are being met through organisational initiatives and is this enough given the diversity of mental health issues that exist?

What does your organisation need to do to increase the level of psychological safety?

As human beings we are hard-wired to be concerned about what others think of us, which can have the effect of holding us back from being ourselves. We can define a healthy working climate as one which is safe for interpersonal risk-taking without embarrassment or fear, and where people are encouraged to share their thoughts and have difficult conversations. But why is this important? It’s widely acknowledged that being able to make mistakes without fear of retribution builds trust among teams and opens up honest conversations between people. They are in turn more likely to share both their ideas and their concerns, so building even greater trust and the associated benefits of shared learning. Google’s extensive survey on team performance found that the highest performing teams have high levels of psychological safety [3]

So what can be done to boost the felt levels of psychological safety[4] in your organisation?

  • Make it real – foster a climate of genuine caring, not just compliance
  • Encourage transparency, and increase the number of face to face interactions
  • Welcome challenge and dissent – this is the route to innovation
  • Take time out to listen – to different voices, opinions and ways of doing things
  • Build staff awareness of what support is available to them
  • Commit to a continuous process of learning what good mental health means in your organisation

What are the major stressors facing managers in their working life?

The top 5 stressors identified by the survey are:

1.       Workload – 43%

2.       Pressure to Perform – 35%

3.       Organisational politics – 33%

4.       Lack of work-life balance – 33%

5.       Lack of support – 22%

These quantitative findings are support by qualitative comments which suggest that time pressure, workload and getting everything done are the primary concerns that keep the respondents awake at night. It can be argued that the current levels of ambiguity in the UK and Irish markets have added to a high proportion of this sample also commenting that fear and anxiety, job insecurity and potential financial instability are also cause for concern.

It is clear much is being done in organisations to support mental health and wellness at work.  But the focus needs to go beyond the immediate day-to-day concerns to alleviate concerns for the future which can carry the same negative consequences as the challenges they are facing in the here and now.

[1] Employee Assistance Programmes: employer-funded schemes allowing access to independent, confidential advice on personal or work-related matters
[2] changes to policies, practices or physical environments in support of the employee’s needs
[3] https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
[4] we define psychological safety here as feeling safe to take risks, voice one’s opinions, ask judgement-free questions and be yourself without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career