For every person that is affected by work related stress, there are loved ones and family members who suffer from a domino effect which impacts their daily lives.
On my journey to find out the real numbers of people suffering from work related stress, I came across a wide ranging set of numbers, all of which were alarming. So, let me start at a conservative estimate from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) which states that the total number of cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in GB in 2018/19 was 602,000, a prevalence rate of 1,800 per 100,000 workers[i].
The above numbers hide the true reality as many people just don’t take time off for fear of being stigmatised, considered weak, being looked over for promotion and, most scarily, fearing that they will lose their jobs. To demonstrate the point, The Office of National Statistics states that over one in four people in the general population and one in six workers in the UK is likely to be suffering from a mental health condition. An excellent article on work related stress written by Deloitte comments that “with over 31 million people in work, this is equivalent to over five million workers who could be suffering from a mental health condition each year[ii].”
Thus, it becomes starkly obvious that it we have over 5 million people with mental health issues, yet only 602,000 taking time off. So what is happening to the rest? Some of them might not need much help but, as we scratch beneath the surface, we unearth a ticking mental health time bomb. If we don’t start addressing the issues over stress at work, lack of understanding and support, we will suffer not only a drop in productivity, but also the social consequences.
Throughout my entire career, I have never taken a single “recorded” day off for stress and I know this is the case for many of my friends and colleagues. According to data from Mind, 95 per cent of employees who have taken off time due to stress named another reason, such as an upset stomach or headache[iii]. This brings me to a positive point that has been raised by many people who responded to my last blog; a lot of people, when they’ve been in difficult situations at home with poor mental health, have found their managers to be very supportive and flexible. Which has made them eternally grateful and more committed to those respective employers.
Hidden behind all of those 602,000 people that left work for stress related issues, there are their families and friends that are directly affected by them. I call it the gravitational force of depression. Everything gets pulled into the dark space where anxiety, depression and mental illness lies. Family members find themselves being sucked in and often find themselves falling into the same space and the domino of effect of poor mental health starts. The big issue here is that often the person suffering from stress is terrified to let their boss know the true extent to their problem, especially if the boss themselves is part of the problem.
A friend of mine whose company had recently made a string of redundancies and was piling pressure on those who were left, told his manager that he was struggling with the additional pressures from work as he was also trying to manage two autistic children with very little support from the school. The response of her manager was “that’s life!”. He decided never to open up to her manager again and try to manage an impossible situation.
You would think with official total number of working days lost due to poor mental health in 2018/19 in Great Britain, being 12.8 million days, would create a national crisis. The WHO (World Health Organisation) believe the UK number is more like 91 million days in 2018 and will cost the workplace £70 billion. It’s as if we have sleepwalked into a mentally sick nation. I am not even adding all the millions of people suffering anxiety, stress and young children with mental health issues. According to the statistics body of NHS Digital “At any one time, a sixth of the population in England aged 16 to 64 have a mental health problem”[iv].
I have taken time off to look after my family particularly my mentally unwell daughter. Recently, I was in a terrible situation with I needed to help my daughter as she was in a crisis as she was falling through the social services and NHS net. It was a 24 hour job trying to help her. Luckily, the MD of the small company that I worked for was very understanding and allowed me to take time off to help my daughter, even though the company was struggling itself. This was the trigger that made me decide to dedicate my time to working in the mental health field.
So next time an employee is stressed at work, take the time to talk to them and offer them support, if you help them, they will reward you back in spades. Their families will be happier and your good deed will ripple with positivity throughout their network. Colleagues talk. Often, they spend more time with their colleagues than their family. When one is treated badly or unfairly, their colleagues know and it effects the way they view their employer.
The employer has a big role to play in helping tackle this problem. I believe that every company should take at least 5% of its profits and invest it into mental health well-being. Ultimately, if they don’t do something, they will suffer the consequences and feel the impact if something goes wrong. A healthier employee leads to greater productivity, which seems so logical yet not carried out in practice. We definitely need a Greta Thurnberg of the corporate world to bring it to the nation’s attention.
There is some good news though, the WHO has estimated that for around every £1 invested into the treatment and support of mental health disorders sees approximately a return of £4 in improved health and productivity.
So how can organizations better support the wellbeing and mental health of their employees? The Shaw Mind Foundation, which supports mental health at work, suggests that there are a lot of changes businesses can make. They provide five small changes that I’ve taken the liberty to add to, that take little investment but are thought to improve an employee’s wellbeing considerably:
Enforce a clear working hours culture. This can be done by limiting out-of-hours work and encouraging reduced email access outside of office hours. Employees need uninterrupted time off
Help employees who work in an isolated way. If they are working from home extensively, make sure there are regular check-ins, contact and helpful communication
Set attainable deadlines and spread workloads equally and fairly across employees and teams
Provide on-going support services and staff members who have had training in mental health and workplace stress. Make sure this support is known about
Promote healthy eating, regular exercise and team events