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Protecting your employees' mental health and wellbeing

Mental Health Awareness Week ran from 10th-16th May this year. There's a strong argument for making mental awareness every employer's priority, every week. 

At Q&A People Matter, we encourage all our clients to keep mental health at the top of their agenda.

Last month we posted on Q&A's social media business pages, reporting on the World Health Organization's (WHO) study: 'Long working hours increasing deaths from heart disease and stroke' and the worrying correlation between working long hours and ill health.

The study revealed that in 2016, it's estimated that 745,000 people died from a health condition (such as heart disease or stroke) often associated with working long hours (in this study, long hours were defined as working over 55 hours a week).

In this blog we look into the report in further detail. What can we learn from this study? 

Arguably the pandemic and the shift towards home working will add to these statistics if the boundaries between home life and work isn't managed effectively.

Employers should be encouraged to lead the way when it comes to protecting employees' mental health and wellbeing. By being proactive in this regard hopefully we won't be reporting an upward curve in deaths in years to come.

What did the WHO study report?

The research was conducted between 2000 and 2016. The study reported that 72% of the victims were men - middle aged and above and said that many of the deaths occurred some years after individuals had worked the long hours.

Those most affected were based in South East Asia and the Western Pacific area.

Compared to working a 35 to 40 hour week, the risk of suffering a stroke was 35% higher and the risk of dying from heart disease was 17% higher for those working in excess of 55 hours per week.

Work related stress and its impact on the economy

It's long been established that the impact of work related stress on the UK economy is immense. 

The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) annual report details the incidence of work related stress year on year. For 2019/20 the HSE estimated that 828,000 workers suffered from work related stress resulting in around 17.9 million working days lost. Compare this with data for 2004/05, when 509,000 workers reported the same condition, with 12.8 million days estimated lost for that year.

Whilst mental health awareness has vastly improved, it's clear that the issue should continue to be a priority for every business owner.

How do employers establish a wellbeing culture?

One such company is Sony Music Entertainment UK. 

Reported on HR Grapevine, Liz Jeffery, Vice President of HR said the company had focused on employee mental health for some time and had incorporated a wellbeing strategy into their workplace protocols. With the onset of the pandemic, the strategy was already embedded but had gained even more momentum.

Liz Jeffery goes on to say that adoption of such a policy came from the top and credits their Chairman and CEO, Jason Iley MBE:

“By establishing a strong wellbeing culture from the top, we could support our team with different challenges experienced during the pandemic, from imposter syndrome to parental guilt, to achieving work-life balance in isolation whilst staying at home.”

So how has Sony Music Entertainment UK implemented a wellbeing strategy? What's been put in place to support employees?

  • Creation of a management-led culture of supporting and normalising mental health.
  • Provision of support and advice to managers to equip them to support their teams.
  • Regular check-ins to make make sure employees are coping.
  • Learning/enrichment opportunities offered to employees.
  • Senior leader engagement: to encourage early interventions, which in turn, have created a culture of openness: “employees said that having an open and safe space to talk about this topic was appreciated and made a difference”.

What's significant here is that it's not just about providing support services or telling employees how to access them - it's about creating a company culture which encourages a discussion around mental health on a frequent basis and enabling employees to voice their needs and issues.

Look at the employee benefits you have in place

An article written last month by Nic Paton for Employee Benefits provides an insightful guide for employers. 

Research suggests companies are concerned about their workers' mental health post-pandemic and how they will adjust to a return to the workplace environment. 

Willis Towers Watson conducted their study 'Emerging trends in healthcare delivery' in April this year and found that 90% of the businesses surveyed were worried about their workforce's mental wellbeing. Of those, three quarters were looking to make changes to their current support provision and improve the resources available to employees. 

That's a positive step, but how do business owners build resilience in their workforce? How do employees become resilient in both their general outlook and their response to the return to a post-pandemic work culture?

Mark Southern, commercial director at WPA suggests senior leaders should review the existing benefits currently in place rather than invest in new resources without an audit. Consider, for example, whether mental health tools are available but are being under-utilised. Mark suggests that existing Employee Assistance Programs should be revisited - are management support tools being overlooked or self-help resources being ignored? He also recommends that businesses look at their Group Risk Policies and investigate whether all the features are being accessed - for example a second medical opinion, nursing services or early intervention services.  Avoiding a 'knee-jerk reaction' to the provision of mental health support is the key recommendation.

Organisations should also look in more depth at the data extrapolated from employee opinion surveys. Drilling down to the underlying issues will establish what's really going and inform your wellbeing strategy.

Rebecca Spiller, client manager at employee wellbeing platform Tictrac, demonstrates the point:

“For example, employees might be saying ‘oh I’m really stressed’ but then, when you look at the data, what they’re looking for advice on is the fact they’re not sleeping well or that their workload is out of balance. So, there is a lot of information that can be inferred through data analytics, and it is about making sure employers are using all these aggregated insights to their best advantage.”

Other contributors to the article return to the theme of communication and encouraging a culture of openness. If mental health tools are being offered to employees they must be a good fit for the individual concerned and managers will only find this out by talking to the person on a one to one basis. 

Charles Alberts, head of wellbeing solutions UK at Aon, quoted on the subject of communication:

 “That, I think, is one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic. Organisations are, in general, engaging more with their employees than they ever have before. They really need to home in on what will make a big difference."

It's down to employers to take the lead on mental wellbeing

It shouldn't come as any great surprise to read that working long hours is associated with ill-health. But the recently published WHO research which estimates over 700,000 people died in 2016 from health conditions associated with burning the midnight oil for their work is a sobering thought.

Work related stress and ill health is not a new concept but we are likely to be managing a higher incidence post pandemic. Why is it that we continue to read about organisations who turn a blind eye to long working hours - or even accept it as part of the company's working culture - read the Guardian's article on 'inhumane working hours' at Goldman Sachs.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has reported that more than 3 million worked unpaid overtime in 2020 - that equates to around 7.7 hours every week.

It's the responsibility of employers to set the bar and to see it doesn't go higher - the employer's duty of care extends to the health, safety, physical and mental wellbeing of its employees. 

Jamie Mackenzie, Director of Sodexo Engage, speaking about the role of employers, is quoted on the my.executive.grapevine.com website:

"Their role is to provide support for employees who might be struggling, not to be the ones responsible for inflicting them."

Shouldn't companies be addressing this issue head on in light of the pandemic; creating worker-centric environments which encourage dialogue about mental health and work fatigue?

With home and work life edges blurring and some reporting even greater workloads, the WHO says the picture can only get worse. 

Let's continue to keep mental health at the top of the business agenda.

It makes financial sense, business sense and is basic common sense - your employees are your greatest asset.

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