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Why is workplace mental health more important than ever before?

By Claire Price, QMS International

Mental illness has risen to be a leading cause of workplace illness, pushing it to the top of the health & safety agenda. But what exactly is the scale of the issue, and more importantly, what can employers do to promote positive mental health & well-being in the workplace?

In the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2020/21 report for health & safety statistics at work, the scale of poor mental health and well-being in the workplace was revealed.

According to its statistics, 50% all cases of new and long-standing work-related ill health were a product of stress, depression or anxiety, making these mental health conditions the leading causes of work-related illness during 2020/21, mirroring the results found the previous year. In total, this means that 822,000 workers were reported to be stressed, anxious or depressed as a result of work in 2020/21.

Over the last few years this figure has been steadily growing – an upward trend that is likely to continue. The pandemic has undoubtedly worsened this. According to the Employee well-being during a pandemic: Global insights for health and safety at work report by Lloyds Register in 2020, stress increased dramatically during the initial COVID-19 breakout with 70% of those questioned reporting an increase in work-related stress during the period of March to December 2020. This was linked to employee shortages due to sickness, redundancy or furlough, which ramped up the workloads of those who remained.

Remote working, while positive for some, also caused feelings of isolation in others. Indeed, the Lloyds report revealed that 17% of those surveyed felt alone while a significant 48.4% stated that their working lives had become worse since being forced to work remotely.

With 17.9 million working days being lost in 2019/20 due to stress, anxiety and depression, there is certainly a clear motive for employers to act. Many workers felt unsupported during the first year of the pandemic (just 15% of those questioned in the Lloyds report said that they were given resources on well-being), which demonstrates that there is a clear gap that employers need to fill if they are truly to keep their workers happy, healthy and safe.

Establishing the psychosocial risks
If you want to do something to support the mental health of your employees you first need to establish the workplace risk factors for mental ill health, otherwise known as psychosocial risks.

Psychosocial risks are essentially anything that can affect a worker’s psychological response to their job role or working conditions. Typical psychosocial risks can include:

  • large workloads
  • pressured deadlines
  • a lack of worker control
  • monotony
  • a lack of rewards

To begin to establish the psychosocial risks for your workplace, start by looking at your employee sick leave records. Trends for illnesses such as headaches or musculoskeletal disorders (which can be the result of tension from stress) are typical red flags. Any logs for psychological injury or illness should also be noted.

Other records you may like to examine include grievance records, overtime logs and meeting minutes, which may include mention of heavy workloads, job role changes or a request for more support.

It’s important to engage your employees at this stage too. A survey could be particularly helpful if your staff work remotely. It’s also worthwhile taking a walk around your organisation if your employees are on site. Are there understaffed areas, signs of illness such as colds, or people who seem irritable or frustrated? All of these can be the result of psychosocial risks.

Once you have a list of risks for your workplace, prioritise them by listing the consequences and their likelihood of occurrence.

Implementing solutions
Once you have a prioritised list of psychosocial risks you can begin to develop controls to mitigate or remove them. For instance, you may need to re-evaluate workloads or shift patterns, hire additional staff or offer training.

Good communication is also vital. A common complaint in the Lloyds report was that employers did not provide support materials for mental health and well-being, so make sure that these are offered. You may want to download and use materials from a mental health charity to help you.

It can also be useful to train a team of mental health first aiders. Mental health first aiders are trained to recognise the signs of mental illness and can signpost colleagues to relevant support, such as the GP, therapy or support groups. As a fellow colleague, they act as a non-judgemental listening ear and an easy-to-access port of call for those who want to talk. Their role can also help to promote workplace positivity and the reduction of stigma surrounding mental ill health.

Offering an occupational health service or employee assistance programme can be helpful for both you and your employees too. These programmes can give you and your workers access to qualified specialists for support or confidential counselling. Some schemes also run rehabilitation programmes, which can help you to bring workers back to work in a safe and timely way.

Finally, you could create a more comprehensive set of processes designed to protect your workers mental health and well-being with ISO 45003, a new Standard for psychological health & safety at work.

This Standard is designed to help employers identify the conditions and workplace demands that could affect the psychological health and well-being of workers and develop processes that can manage these risks.

This helps organisations create a more positive workplace and build resilience and productivity. With the right processes in place, employers can also work towards reducing absences as a result of mental ill health. The Standard also features guidelines for modern ways of working, such as remote or hybrid workplaces, which means that employers can create strong processes that also protect workers who don’t work in the organisation’s buildings or during office hours.

Analyse and reflect
Once you have found your workplace’s psychosocial risks and created controls for them, you need to ensure that they are effective. Indicators of effectiveness include a reduction of workplace accidents or absences, reduced work hours or overtime, or positive feedback from staff surveys.

Work-related mental illness is already a significant issue and is very unlikely to diminish any time soon. By implementing effective solutions now, you can work to ensure that your organisation offers workers the support they need to do their jobs safely and efficiently, rewarding your business with greater productivity and a workforce with great morale.

QMS International is one of the UK’s leading ISO certification providers.