Sharing the responsibility for managing mental health at work

14 May 2019 By Simone Cheng

Organisations, managers and employees must learn to work together to improve mental ill-health caused by work, says Simone Cheng

“Every one of us will have the knowledge, tools and confidence, to understand and look after our own mental health and the mental health of those around us.” 

This is the vision set out by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer in their review of mental health, and is one that Acas shares. Last September, we launched our Framework for positive mental health at work which reflects the core and enhanced mental health standards promoted by Stevenson and Farmer. These include encouraging open conversations about mental health, providing good working conditions and promoting effective people management. Our framework highlights the responsibility of positive mental health at work on all key players – employers, managers and individuals.

In a new poll, Acas sought to understand more about workplace stress and anxiety from the perspective of employees, specifically what they considered to be the triggers and solutions, and who might be responsible for addressing this issue.

Our poll found that two-thirds of employees (66 per cent) have felt stressed and/or anxious about work in the last 12 months. However, it is encouraging to note that the majority of employees (79 per cent) feel very or fairly confident in identifying the causes of what makes them stressed or anxious about work. Most respondents chose workload (60 per cent), followed by the way they are managed (42 per cent), and balancing work and home life (35 per cent).

Such findings align with other research, including the latest statistics from the HSE. Our culture of long working hours seems far from subsiding, despite various campaigns for a four-day working week. Recent analysis by the TUC indicated that UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, working an additional two and a half weeks a year, yet remain far less productive than our counterparts. At this rate, could Japan’s ‘996’ work culture be a more likely path than John Maynard Keynes’ 15-hour week?

Unsurprisingly, employees in the Acas poll cited solutions which very much mirror the causes: a reduced workload (33 per cent), better flexible working opportunities (26 per cent) and more clarity around what is required from me for my job role (23 per cent).

Reducing workloads may be easier said than done in some workplaces. There is a common myth, for example, that the more visible you are in the office, the harder you must be working. According to LogMeIn, nearly half (46 per cent) of employees feel pressured to prove that they are actually working when at home. The result? Employees feel they need to be more responsive on email (36 per cent) and work more hours (23 per cent). 

Acas’ framework highlights the shared role that employers, managers and individuals all play in ensuring workplaces are healthy and productive. But our poll results suggest that there are some clear challenges for each of these enablers:

  • Do employees use positive coping strategies? Our poll found that a high proportion (41 per cent) of employees who feel stressed take time out to manage it, including having a cup of tea, closely followed by talking to someone, such as a colleague (38 per cent). However, it is worrying that more than one in four (28 per cent) ‘don’t do anything’ and ‘try to get on with things’. While most can confidently identify the causes of their stress and anxiety, do they know where to turn to for support?

  • Do managers have confidence and knowledge in managing mental health and handling difficult conversations? Our poll showed that the large majority (72 per cent) think that it is a manager’s role to recognise and address stress and anxiety in the workplace (60 per cent said it’s the role of the individual themselves, and 31 per cent said their colleagues). Yet it seems that managers aren’t living up to expectations, as only two-fifths (43 per cent) would talk to their manager about being stressed and/or anxious. Employers have a key role in developing the skills and confidence of their managers to encourage open conversations.

  • Do employers tackle the causes of workplace stress and lead and embed a wellbeing strategy? Less than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) employees say that their organisation is ‘very good’ at preventing employees from feeling stressed and/or anxious about work. At the same time, we know that employees believe that it is their managers’ responsibility for recognising and addressing stress and anxiety. Do senior leaders need to be more visible in their commitment to mental health at work, so that employees see that this responsibility extends beyond front-line managers?

It’s clear from our poll that prevalence of stress and anxiety about work is a challenge that needs to be addressed, and never is this more important than in the fast-changing environment that characterises work life today. Individuals have a good understanding of the causes, but when it comes to the solutions, many feel unable to have the conversation with their managers, or choose to struggle alone. Only by recognising the role and importance of the employer, manager and individual can the goal of healthy and productive workplaces be reached. 

Simone Cheng is a policy adviser at Acas

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