Sharing the responsibility for managing mental health at work

Organisations, managers and employees must learn to work together to improve mental ill-health caused by work, says Simone Cheng, a policy adviser at Acas. Doing so can help both employees and employers cope better with stress and find a positive way forward together

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the People Management website.

“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 it 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 for positive mental health at work which all key players share – 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%) 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%) feel very or fairly confident in identifying the causes of what makes them stressed or anxious about work. Most respondents chose workload (60%), followed by the way they are managed (42%) and balancing work and home life (35%).

Our poll found that two-thirds of employees (66%) have felt stressed and/or anxious about work in the last 12 months.

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 we remain far less productive than our counterparts. At this rate, could Japan’s ‘996’ work culture be a more likely path for us 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%), better flexible working opportunities (26%) and more clarity around ‘what is required from me for my job role’ (23%).

Tackling workload

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%) of employees feel pressured to prove that they are actually working when at home. The result? Employees feel they need to be more responsive to email (36%) and to work more hours (23%).

Acas’ framework highlights the shared role that employers, managers and individuals all play in ensuring that 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%) 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%). However, it is worrying that more than one-in-four (28%) ‘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%) think that it is a manager’s role to recognise and address stress and anxiety in the workplace; 60% said it’s the role of the individual themselves, and 31% their colleagues. Yet it seems that managers aren’t living up to expectations, as only two-fifths (43%) 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? Fewer than 1-in-10 (8%) 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 to recognise and address 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 the prevalence of stress and anxiety about work is a challenge which needs to be addressed – and never has this been 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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