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February 13, 2017

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Mental health: a bottom line issue, but how do you tackle it?

Poor mental health in the workplace that manifests as stress, anxiety and depression is now being seen by some companies as having a major negative impact on the bottom line. The British/UK government is wading in on the topic too.

By Adam Roscoe and Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

But many employers are unwilling to accept they have a role in promoting their employees’ mental health or that they contribute to their lack of mental wellbeing. Managing this issue is not simply a social service to the individual, it’s also a matter of the UK’s international competitiveness, organisational and business resilience and a bottom line performance issue.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) last year launched a focus on mental wellbeing at work. Work-related ill health is the invisible part of the health and safety ‘iceberg’ in that its impacts dwarf those of work-related injuries. For example, the number of days off work for a case of ill health is nearly 6 times (5.75) more than for a workplace injury, and the costs are double those of workplace injuries.

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The HSE recorded 30.4 million working days lost due to self-reported work-related illness or injury in 2015/16.

  • 25.9 million days lost due to work-related illness; and
  • 4.5 million days lost due to workplace injury
  • Average days lost per case for stress, depression or anxiety (24 days) was higher than for musculoskeletal disorders (16 days)
  • Stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health
  • The cost was £14.1bn for all ill health and injuries; £9.3bn for ill health and £4.8bn for injuries
  • Each case of ill health costs an average of £17,600 and £7,400 for each injury case
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At 2015 prices, £9.3 billion could buy more than 18 flagship hospitals or 360 secondary schools or could pay the wages of more than 100,000 doctors. It’s not difficult to see how 30 million days lost affects the bottom line and productivity of individual companies and of UK PLC, even if it’s not yet separately accounted for.

Professor Cary Cooper

Professor Cary Cooper

Professor Cary Cooper, founded and chairs the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work which brings together 20 leading UK-based global companies (represented at HR director or chief medical officer level), and the UK government’s Wellbeing lead and senior NHS representatives.

Prof Cooper, who is also expert adviser to the DWP on workplace mental health, founded the Forum with the aim of engaging stakeholders to raise, discuss and most importantly work on key workplace health and wellbeing issues with the intention of developing useful policy and guidance for companies.

Three specific ‘triggers’ that generate stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace have been identified and these will be addressed by the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work in 2017.

They are:

  • Line managers;
  • the use of technology enabling constant connectivity; and
  • long working hours.

Line managers

Whether they know it or not, line managers in business and central and local government have a unique position to promote mental health, and health and safety legislation expects them to do so.

From the most junior front-line supervisor to the CEO, all line managers set the tone and to a great extent, they can manage their teams in a way that promotes mental health and some do an admirable job.

However, many unwittingly contribute to stress, anxiety and depression in their teams through an unmanageable workload, unreasonable deadlines and insisting on long working hours. They have influence because they often have the control of budgets and targets, and decide priorities, including the deployment of physical resources and their people. Their boss and their boss’s boss also have huge influence on the wellbeing of frontline staff and supervisors.

So how does business get the right kind of line manager?

People management skills are rarely taught in general business education, outside the HR specialist areas, so one solution is to deliver a combination of education on managing people in undergraduate business degrees and an explicit top-up of skills in MBA courses covering working with and managing people.

In terms of line manager recruitment processes, specific assessments and taking references of candidates’ skills related to people and leadership should be included, together with ongoing support and training of existing managers to help them recognise and reward good performance and attitudes more often than they find fault and penalise.

Email, smart technology

Love them or hate them (or both at different times), connecting with the office network via smartphone, tablet and laptop can all play a part in making organisations more responsive, efficient and effective. These tools can be used for enabling flexible working and planned home working. Used badly, for routinely filling employees’ out of hours time with work, they can be a menace to mental health and wellbeing. But being connected is a fact of life, for work or leisure – for better or for worse.

A few governments legislate on the issue and from January 1, a law came into force in France that discourages companies from expecting employees to be on email and working out of hours.

The new law, which seeks to promote agreements between companies and employees on working hours out of the workplace, may not actually reduce long hours and email traffic. But it could give burned-out or stressed workers who sue companies a legitimate grievance in that the employer has willfully ignored labour law.

There is a similar law in Germany and some of the country’s government departments and companies, including VW, BMW and Daimler which see this as an issue, and have taken some steps to limit employees being bombarded by emails.

Longer working hours

The combination of line managers who don’t know how to manage their own and their teams’ stress and workload, coupled with the misuse of mobile tech are both contributors to the final key workplace mental health hazard: long working hours.

When an organisation experiences emergencies or special circumstances, many employees are quite prepared to work longer hours, to come into work at short notice and be connected 24/7.

But there has been ‘mission creep’ as companies seek to reduce costs by cutting jobs, while maintaining the same work levels with fewer employees. The ‘new normal’ seems to be that companies are in a constant state of self-induced emergency, resulting in ‘presenteeism’, extended working hours as employees are constantly connected and often working remotely outside office hours and over weekends and holidays.

The absence of downtime is like over-revving an engine – it won’t do much harm for a short period, but long-term, it’ll blow up.

In Japan, the definition of the word ‘karoshi’ is ‘dying from overwork’. The media covered one tragic case of a young woman who committed suicide as a result of overwork, in addition to some of the attempts to address the root causes of overwork.

More detail on the causes and effects of excessive working hours can be found in Prof Cooper’s co-authored book: “Long Working Hours Culture”.

Next steps

Companies think that if they ignore the issue of mental health in the workplace, then they can’t be held accountable if their workers fall ill due to work-related stress. However, with government and media focus on mental health and the stark statistics from the HSE, it’s increasingly difficult for companies to plead ignorance.

Some leading companies have recognised the issue and are taking steps to address the challenges, yet many companies still have no policy on these areas. And in future, if a company is accused of poor mental health practices, or is sued by employees and it cannot show a policy, this may infer that it has been negligent in its wider duty of care for employees, and penalties and damages could be boosted accordingly.

But all companies can improve their productivity, profitability and resilience through active management of the workplace mental health of their employees. Typically, this starts with dialogue and leads to concrete work on policies to support mental wellbeing at work.

The dialogue will involve input from managers, employees and their representatives, and HR, medical and health and safety experts and will cover expectations on line managers’ responsibilities, working hours and out-of-hours availability and working.

The resulting policy should contain transparent advice and direction about how long and under what circumstances employees are expected to work in the office and remotely.

It’s in the interests of employees, managers, the company – and its shareholders – to have a clear policy on mental health in the workplace. As the British social reformer said back in 1851: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed; they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it.”

That is our challenge.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper is 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at the ALLIANCE Manchester Business School and is recognised as a world leading expert on wellbeing and author of many books in this field. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, The Royal Society of Medicine, The Royal Society of Public Health and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians; and the lead scientist on the Government Office for Science report ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’. He is also President of the CIPD, President of the Institute of Welfare, President of RELATE and President of the British Academy of Management.

Adam RoscoeAdam Roscoe is a consultant specialising in organisational resilience, sustainability, governance and communications. He spent 14 years at a Fortune 500 engineering company based in Zurich.  For eight years to 2015 he headed the company’s sustainability function, including strategy, policy and programs covering health, safety, environment; security, crisis management; human rights; sensitive countries / projects across 100 countries. He is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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