Assistant Editor , SHP

May 17, 2024

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“One in six employees in any week will experience common mental health problems”

The British Safety Council (BSC) recently held a virtual workplace wellbeing conference that focused on engaging, equipping and empowering the workplace for optimal mental health.

Hosted by Stephen Haynes, BSC’s Director of Wellbeing, the conference included sessions on financial wellbeing, inclusivity and the effects that sleep deprivation can have at work.

“People are scared to talk about it”

In a panel discussion on inclusive wellbeing, Khushboo Patel, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist at BSC, and Richard Talbot from Newport City Homes, discussed actionable ways to recognise and include neurodiverse employees in the workplace.

Kushboo Patel presenting

Patel said that neurodiversity has only recently come into more focus in the workplace, and organisations unsure of where to start should look at ways to support: “In the same way that you look at the term diversity that describes a group of people with different characteristics, neurodiversity describes a group of brains who think differently.

“You’re not a medical practitioner…you don’t need to know the conditions, as an employer what you need to know is how your neurodivergent colleagues present symptoms and how you can support those symptoms.”

Talbot, who is autistic, encouraged the audience to speak to those who are neurodivergent: “They’re the experts, ask them. They know what their needs are so don’t be scared to have the conversation…‘what can we do to support you?’”

He also shared his personal story saying: “So I’ve led my life up to this point as two people – ‘workplace Richard’ and ‘private life Richard’. Workplace Richard masks some of the autistic traits…when it’s normal work and there’s not too much pressure and you’re getting on with business as usual that’s quite easy.

“When things change or you’re put into different environments – I find [that] training can be very hard…when they take away the desks and sit you round, and you’re not allowed a pen and you can’t shake your legs…you can’t do those stemming things that nobody would [usually] recognise…[what] that could lead to is meltdown or stimulus fatigue or shutdown.”

Richard Talbot presenting 

Talbot said for employers to try to recognise patterns of behaviour, and mentioned that his manager can see when Talbot is stressed and points out when he should go to a quiet room if over-stimulated.

Similarly, Patel added: “A really important thing is to understand that each person who has a neurodivergent condition and even people who have the same condition, present differently, and so when you listen to one person’s journey don’t think you know it all…really listen and empathise with your colleagues.”

They both agreed that the barrier to inclusion lies with the lack of knowledge or education on neurodiversity, with Talbot saying: “I think people are scared to talk about it, scared to have that conversation…scared they may upset someone. But actually, having somebody talk to you about it shows that somebody cares.”

“About  one in six employees in any week will experience common mental health problems”

Samantha Downie, Managing Director at Mates in Mind focused on the way employers can proactively support mental health in the workplace.

She added that work is positive and even therapeutic when people feel happy in their role: “Work is generally good for our health, including our mental health. There’s a strong evidence base showing that work is generally good for physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

“The thing that we want to pay attention to here is the progression from good mental health or coping, to poor mental health”

She highlighted that remote working has changed the landscape of employer-employee relationships, where intervening in someone’s health and safety may need a different approach.

Downie explained that any employee, at any time, can have short-term stress such as meeting deadlines or reaching a destination on time, but that this goes away quickly once the end goal is met: “About one in six employees in any week will experience common mental health problems such as anxiety or depression and 1 in 100 will have a mental illness, for example, personality disorder or anxiety or panic attacks, and these issues are generally being supported by NHS services.

“The thing that we want to pay attention to here is the progression from good mental health or coping, to poor mental health and the way in which we can move from one end of the spectrum to the other.”

Samantha Downie presenting at the conference, describing ways organisations can lead in having a positive mental health culture

Downie listed stresses that can come from work such as job security, the nature of work, problems with colleagues and managers, workload, lack of support and constant change. Adding that employees can have another layer of personal stress such as relationship problems, financial concerns, loneliness, bereavement, childcare, or caring for a sick family member, which in turn has a “big impact” on the individuals’ experience of work.

Downie’s next steps for organisations included a move from being reactive, for example only having support services at the point of need, to organisations collecting multiple data sets to inform their continuous approach and treating mental health more seriously by equipping managers in mental health training.

This in turn, she said, would allow a mental health literacy throughout the workplace so that people feel comfortable to speak up: “We have work to do on setting a culture in which mental health is understood as being as serious as physical health. And in which people feel confident to raise a concern, that they’ll be supported and understood and that there’s a competence and confidence there to respond.”

Track fatigue to avoid injury and error

In another session, Dr David Lee, from Sleep Unlimited delved into the science of sleeping, and told the audience that sleep is needed in order for us to be happy, functional people.

He described the sleep cycle in more detail: “You need the deep non-REM [sleep] to tidy up and organise your memories and you need your REM sleep to emotionally dissipate the stresses of the day.

“Anything that knocks you out of the deep or the REM, puts you in light non-REM [sleep], so you don’t tidy up so well and you don’t emotionally reprocess so well, so you wake up the next day not as functional.”

Factors that may disrupt sleep included eating meals, having caffeine, nicotine or alcohol two hours before sleeping, but also psychological stress: “You will struggle with everything and anything if you don’t get enough sleep”, he added.

Along with sleep at night, Dr Lee explained that the body goes through a circadian rhythm every 24 hours, which works in 90-minute cycles, made out of dips and peaks; the dips being when a person feels more fatigued and the peaks when more energised and alert.

Dr David Lee presenting the circadian cycle during the event

He added that if monitored effectively, it could help reduce accidents and error: “If you can plot your peaks and dips throughout the 24-hour period and schedule task accordingly [you’re] going to make yourself a much more efficient human.

“The accidents, they’re happening in the dips, the loss of vigilance accidents, the fatigue-related accidents, they happen when people are tired and when they dip.”

Dr Lee encouraged health and safety professionals to spread the awareness of a good night’s sleep, and to encourage workers take breaks when needed so that they work in optimal conditions: “You optimise their sleep, the dips are less pronounced, they’re less likely to have the accidents. If they know [tiredness] is coming and they can avoid dangerous stuff at this time, have a break, come back and do the tricky stuff…you are going to save a lot of cost, damage, accidents and loss of life.”

On optimising the sleep cycle, Dr Lee also encouraged the audience to try to be outside if they can, explaining that sitting by a window inside provides about 300 Lux (the measurement of illumination) of light pressure, compared to being outside on a cloudy day, which has around 30,000 Lux, or 50,000 Lux on a sunny day: “I’m not supposed to be zooming, I’m supposed to be farming. We spend more and more time indoors away from that natural daylight – there’s a hundred times more light pressure out there, than I’m sitting in right here.”

Dr Lee said the light pressure helps the brain regulate a sleep cycle and can make you feel tired at the end of the day, naturally: “Find opportunities that you would normally do [inside] – out there”, he said, pointing to his window.

The day’s sessions focused on the multiple layers that can be barriers for employee wellbeing at work, with a common theme of communication – both to employees in one-to-ones, and for continued feedback on the best organisational approach.

SHP has a go-to resource page on wellbeing to help managers support team members who may be experiencing stress or struggling with their mental health, including warning signs, duty of care and top tips, to read more, click here.

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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