Tackling the stress taboo: join the conversation

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Ingrained cultures of silence about mental health are all too common in many workplaces. Creating open, honest cultures is vital. It’s time to talk, and keep on talking.

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem this year. Despite this, many employees don’t know who to speak to or what to say if they are worried about their mental health. Staff are often concerned that nobody will understand, or worse still, fear losing their job because of the stigma around mental health.

Starting conversations about mental health can be a hard step to take, particularly if there is a culture of silence ingrained in the organisation. An October 2014 YouGov poll of 1,250 workers commissioned by Mind revealed a taboo around talking about mental health. A huge 95% of respondents who had taken time off sick from their current workplace due to stress gave their employer a different reason for their absence, such as a headache. Furthermore, fewer than half of workers with a diagnosed mental health problem told their boss.

In addition, a survey of 2,060 workers in England and Wales commissioned by Mind in March 2013 found that 45% of workers feel they are expected to cope without mentioning stress and 31% said they would not talk openly to their line manager if they felt stressed.

This is hardly surprising when 78% of workers felt their bosses did not take active steps to help them manage their stress. That’s why it’s so important that employers are proactive and promote a positive culture about mental health so  members of the staff feel comfortable to speak out and receive help when they’re struggling with their mental health. With such support, health and safety professionals should feel able to talk openly about their wellbeing as well as feeling confident when supporting colleagues.

At Mind we know that demands for mental health services are on the rise. Visitors to our website and calls to our infoline are also increasing and many people are getting in touch about more acute and complex problems, including concerns about employment. Mental health is an issue too big for employers to ignore, and we want to see health and safety professionals incorporate wellbeing into their wider strategies.

Mind’s research last October highlighted some common sources of stress at work, many of which can and should be tackled. Factors deemed as very or fairly stressful included excessive workload (52%), frustration with poor management (54%), not enough support from managers (47%), threat of redundancy (27%) and unrealistic targets (45%). Offshore workers, lone workers and people who are working remotely or the self employed may also be at greater risk of unmanageable stress and mental health problems.

While there is currently no specific law to tackle stress in the workplace, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 say employers have a legal responsibility to minimise the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees.

Under the Equality Act 2010 the employer has a duty to make adjustments for an employee with a disability, including a mental health problem. Although stress is not a mental health problem, prolonged exposure to stress can cause or exacerbate a mental health problem. Adjustments can include things like changes to working hours or workplace; return-to-work policies such as a phased return; changes to role (temporary or permanent); changes to break times; increased support from managers in prioritising and managing workload; and provision of quiet rooms.

There are many things employers can do to help minimise stress, and they need not be costly. Even small inexpensive changes can make a huge positive difference to employees and reap rewards in terms of improved productivity, morale, staff retention and reduced sickness absence.

A wider approach
At Mind we recommend a three-pronged approach to support workplace mental wellbeing, which promotes wellbeing for all staff, tackles the causes of work-related mental health problems and supports staff experiencing mental ill health.

So it’s not just about supporting staff with a mental health problem, but prioritising the wellbeing of all employees who can benefit from developing a wellness action plan. This simple but effective intervention involves staff working alongside their manager to jointly identify anything that may have a negative impact on mental health and the steps to offset this.

Early interventions are vital, so employers shouldn’t have to wait for concerns to be raised about stress levels. It’s important organisations create space for employees to discuss any issues that are affecting their wellbeing at work, whether it’s workload, hours or relationships. Equally important is that managers listen to and address these concerns early on.

An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – a confidential 24-hour telephone support line – can benefit staff, particularly those who don’t feel comfortable talking about their wellbeing with colleagues.

A key part of Mind’s support work is a Workplace Wellbeing programme, which aims to highlight to employers and business leaders the importance of prioritising mental health at work, and tackling the causes of stress and poor mental health among staff.

We train managers in how to deal with the mental health of their staff but we also suggest all staff take part in mental health awareness training.

Equipping managers with the skills they need to spot and tackle early signs of stress and mental health problems is vital. When you manage someone with a mental health problem, as it is with any other employee, regular communication is important. Many managers are concerned about doing the wrong thing, but if you’re unsure how best to support someone just ask what they need, focus on the person rather than the problem, and avoid making assumptions about how their symptoms might impact their ability to do their job. Many people can manage their condition and perform to a high standard.

Start talking
Above all else, start those conversations and create a space for them to take place. You don’t need to be an expert – just being a personable, approachable manager can help you develop good relationships based on trust and understanding. It’s about opening lines of communication, and keeping them open if employees go off sick, letting them know they are valued, but without pressuring them back to work prematurely.

In order to achieve lasting change organisations need to create an open, honest culture where people feel they can talk about their wellbeing. Strong leadership and senior managers buy-in on wellbeing as an organisational priority is vital.

Employers are beginning to see the business case for supporting staff wellbeing and are starting to have conversations to tackle the causes of poor mental health. For example, in 2009 EDF Energy was losing around £1.4m in productivity each year due to staff mental ill health. The small changes they introduced increased job satisfaction from 38% to 68% and saved £228,000 per year in improved productivity.

We hope that this positive shift in attitudes is due to anti-stigma campaigns like Time to Change, which Mind run jointly with Rethink Mental Illness. We’ve also seen over 250 organisations demonstrate their commitment to supporting the wellbeing of their staff by signing the Time to Change organisational pledge. We’re now calling on employers to get involved with Time to Talk Day on 5 February 2015 and have a five minute conversation about mental health.

It is the time to start and keep talking about mental health.

Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing at Mind



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