Mental health at work: how far have we come?

Mental health at work: how far have we come?

77% of survey respondents feel regularly stressed in their jobs, so Accountancy Age analyses the reasons why and shares what still needs to be done to improve attitudes towards mental health at work

Mental Health Awareness Week is an important annual event which brings the topic to the forefront both in our personal and professional lives.

Accountancy Age did some special features during the week to mark the occasion, but it didn’t stop there. Together with HRD Connect, we put out a survey to our audiences asking about their experiences of mental health at work.

The overwhelming focus of the feedback was on communication. We need to be able to talk about mental health at work, freely and openly and with no fears of any consequences. We must view it on par with our physical health. Only then can we progress.

Is mental health accepted in the workplace?

Out of the survey respondents, 22% said they would not feel comfortable in disclosing a mental health illness to their place of work, while 30% were unsure whether they would. This meant less than half of respondents gave a positive response, with 33% saying they would feel ‘quite comfortable’ and only 15% would be very comfortable to talk to their workplace about their mental health.

In spite of the above, 55% of respondents said they had taken a day off work for mental health reasons, meaning many of those who are or have suffered with their mental health did not feel comfortable in disclosing this at work. Indeed, 38% of those who have taken a day off for mental health said they did not tell their workplace it was for this reason.

Part of accepting mental health is talking about it, and letting others know that they can share how they are feeling it if they want to. While attitudes towards mental health are slowly changing, 40% of respondents said that it is hardly ever discussed at work, and 20% said they only talk about it maybe once every month. When you ask your colleagues how they are every day, they should be able to respond honestly.

The majority of respondents, 49%, agreed that mental health is no longer a taboo subject, reflecting the fact that we are moving in the right direction, even though 46% think it is still taboo, and 5% said they don’t know.

How can leadership help?

When asked whether they would prefer to speak to colleagues or managers about mental health, the majority said colleagues (36%), although 22% said they would talk to managers.

One way leadership can help improve attitudes towards mental health at work is by sharing their own experiences. Almost three quarters (74%) of survey respondents said this would be helpful to them and their colleagues, and it’s an initiatives that managers and directors at quite a few firms are now adopting, including the Big Four.

Expanding on this, we asked the audience how senior management could help to normalise mental health in the workplace.

Lots of suggestions were shared, including having trained Mental Health First Aiders, a company-wide mental health policy, allowing sick days for mental health, educational talks and seminars, encouraging work-life balance, taking every case seriously, and disciplining any manager who fails to assist staff with issues.

Personal experiences of mental health at work

Over half of respondents, 52%, said that a mental health condition had made them feel isolated at work at some point. Also 23% said they had been discriminated against for a mental health condition at work, a shocking figure when no-one should face treatment like that.

Issues like this can be changed be simply improving communication around the subject, listening when people need you to, and not letting others be disrespectful.

Very few respondents said that working with a colleague with a mental health condition would make them feel uncomfortable, though for the 10% that were unsure and the 1% who would feel uncomfortable, there needs to be an education piece.

Those who said they weren’t sure they would be comfortable cited reasons like they don’t want to make it worse by bringing the topic up in conversation or they feel like they don’t understand the condition. Again this can be remedied through education.

What needs to change

The fact that 43% of respondents said their company has a fair attitude towards mental health is encouraging, but something needs to be done about the 18% of people that feel their company doesn’t. People should not be driven out of jobs or made to suffer in silence because their employer is not caring for them properly.

In the same question, 39% answered that ‘more could be done’ and then provided some suggestions.

Recommendations included encouraging discussion around mental health, including mental health in private healthcare coverage and educating employees and management about mental health.

Are we stressed at work?

An overwhelming majority of 77% of respondents said they regularly feel stressed at work.

Work load was the main reason people get stressed, followed closely by the people they work with. The environment they work in and the daily tasks they have to complete were also causes of stress. For 30% of respondents, work is naturally stressful because of the demands of the specific job they do.

Other sources of stress are commuting, unsupportive management, no prospects, lack of recognition, unrealistic expectations, and self-pressure.

Interestingly, stress seems to be viewed in a slightly different way to general mental health, since 64% of respondents said they would tell management if they were feeling regularly stressed.

Those who said they wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing this with management cited a myriad of reasons as to why, including being worried about losing their job, receiving a negative response or being judged, or feeling like a let-down.

Respondents also came up with solid solutions that workplaces could take on to combat stress.

A flexible working policy and stress-relieving activities at work were the top two solutions. Classes on managing stress, a better working environment, and education around how to be healthier were also desired among respondents.

When asked for specific feedback, our audience shared very powerful advice:

“Listen to us. Hear us. Understand us. Value us. All the bells and whistles in the world cannot make up for being unappreciated.”

“Ensure that people are treated with respect at all levels of the organisation. Stop insisting we check emails when we’re supposed to be on holiday. Stop suggesting weekend work.”

“We need better education at leadership level on how to treat people as people and active encouragement for people to put wellbeing first. After all we know that when that happens people work more efficiently, get more done and to a higher standard.”

How important is a work-life balance?

When asked what people define a good work-life balance as, having a flexible working policy was the favourite option (47%). A lot of people also thought that occasionally working over time was ok, as long as you mostly stick to contracted hours.

What was more negative was the fact that 83% of respondents have, at some point, sacrificed their wellbeing or happiness for the sake of their career.

The reasons people felt they had to do this were because they were scared of losing their job, they needed to stay due to their finances, and because colleagues were doing it so they felt pressurised.

Instead of encouraging employees to work overtime, which in the end has a negative impact on productivity or employees’ health, we should be sharing ways to relax, switch off, and find balance in our lives.

Exactly 50% of respondents said they switch off by relaxing at home with a book or their favourite TV show. Lots of people (37%) enjoy socialising and 30% said they relax by pursuing a hobby outside of work. For 47% of respondents all of the above is built into their lives outside of work. Unfortunately 11% said they struggle to switch off at all, and this is where it is important for colleagues and management to be setting good examples and telling people it’s ok to look after thems

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