Long reads

One in four say work is hurting mental health

26 Apr 2018 By Eleanor Whitehouse

‘Squeezed’ middle managers are at particular risk of stress – but better development opportunities may be part of the answer

Work-life balance. A voice at work. Better job design. Friendship. The components that make up a ‘good job’ are multi-faceted and complex. But if one thing emerges from the CIPD’s flagship UK Working Lives survey, it’s that few employees are enjoying them all.

Launched in the wake of the government’s commitment to measure job quality and the Taylor review of modern working practices, the first annual survey – run by YouGov – looks at what the CIPD refers to as its ‘job quality’ index, made up of seven dimensions (see below), and measures their importance to more than 6,000 UK workers across all levels, sectors and regions.

One major theme to emerge is health and wellbeing at work – in particular, mental health. With 24 per cent of respondents saying their job negatively affects their mental health, one in five (22 per cent) feeling exhausted at work and one in 10 (11 per cent) regularly feeling miserable, employers seemingly still have a long way to go in improving the happiness of their workforces.

Those in permanent roles fared worst in the mental health stakes. The net positive impact (the percentage of positive responses minus the percentage of negative) of work on respondents’ mental health was +45 per cent for the self-employed and +31 per cent for those on temporary, zero-hours or short-hours contracts, compared to just +11 per cent for permanent employees.

However, it’s not all bad news. Nearly half (44 per cent) said work has a positive or very positive effect on their mental health, and a third (30 per cent) reported feeling full of energy at work.

“We recognise that mental health and wellbeing are at the heart of good-quality work,” says Mike Cherry, national chairman of the FSB. “We strive to promote the importance of good mental health and wellbeing for employees and the self-employed. Small businesses need further support to address mental health challenges in the workplace.”

The survey highlights the need for better learning opportunities among the UK workforce, in particular for those in lower-paid and casual roles.

Net agreement that their job offered good opportunities to develop their skills was +40 per cent for those classed as higher managerial, administrative or professional, dropping to -13 for the lowest-skilled workers. A third (32 per cent) of this group said they had not received any training in the last 12 months, compared to 24 per cent overall.

Jonny Gifford, CIPD senior adviser for organisational behaviour and author of the report, says: “More extensive training and development must be part of the solution, so workers can develop in their careers and feel more fulfilled in their work.”

But the problems don’t all lie at the lower end of the corporate hierarchy. The survey results also underline a section of ‘squeezed’ middle managers and mid-level professionals who are under the most pressure, and report the highest levels of anxiety, depression and exhaustion.

Around a third (31 per cent) of this group reported feeling overloaded, and 23 per cent said they feel under excessive amounts of pressure, while 28 per cent believe their work negatively affects their mental health. They are also the group most likely to experience mental ill-health, with 26 per cent suffering with anxiety or depression within the last year.

“The lower end of the workforce spectrum are not always feeling well supported, not given a lot of resources in terms of training, and lack sight of progression. Then above them you have managers who are very broadly stressed. That’s a pretty heady mix,” said CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese at an event to mark the report’s launch.

“The reality is if you’re over-stressed as a management team, you’re not going to be so good at managing or looking after your people, and stress flows downhill. Those are some very important dilemmas to understand.”

Cheese said the findings mattered because the CIPD had “set ourselves the purpose of championing better work and better working lives”.

He added: “We profoundly believe that the goal of the people management profession should be to help people get on in work, to give them opportunity, to develop them and to make the most of their talents, which helps make the most of organisational outcomes. In the end, doing this well is good for individuals, organisations, economies and society at large.”

Following the publication of the survey, the CIPD’s key recommendation was, unsurprisingly, around wellbeing, with the report proposing that “if policymakers, employers, trade unions and employees themselves are to focus on a single dimension of job quality, it should be wellbeing”.

It also recommended that employers offer clear pathways for progression – for example, apprenticeships and mentoring schemes – as well as focus more on the design of jobs and work to ensure the best use of skills and clearer progression paths. 

Employers were also urged to ensure that all employees have a meaningful voice in the organisation through both individual and collective channels, and via formal and informal mechanisms.

Cheese said that “all of the issues described [in the report] are very much HR issues, which is why we’re so passionate about this particular agenda and have tried to work on it from the outset. 

“HR professionals are there to help build better jobs, better roles, better organisations, better opportunities and, of course, that includes diversity and inclusion and many other areas.”

Cheese said clearly defining ‘good work’ provides a real goal to aim for in terms of creating organisations, jobs and roles that make sense for people, utilise their skills and give them progression.

He added: “Hopefully what we can now start to do is use these insights and surveys to build a stronger view within individual organisations of how much work, in terms of jobs etc, can be defined as good work.”

The job quality index

  • Money: Pay, benefits and pensions
  • Terms of employment: Contract type, job security and development opportunities
  • Job design: Workload, qualifications and skills, empowerment and meaningful work
  • Social support and cohesion: Relationships at work, psychological safety, people management
  • Health and wellbeing: Physical and mental health
  • Work-life balance: Overwork, commuting, access to flexible working
  • Voice and representation: Opportunities to have a voice at work
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