As we transition out of lockdown and work out how to develop new ways of working in the future, the effect on employee mental health cannot be ignored, and remains prevalent across all sectors.

As we transition out of lockdown and work out how to develop new ways of working in the future, the effect on employee mental health cannot be ignored, and remains prevalent across all sectors.

No one has escaped the challenges of lockdown, and each business and individual has had a different experience, bringing challenges associated with managing work and personal lives, together with physical and mental health implications. However, in spite of this prevalence, mental health stigma remains. 

According to a survey by IP Inclusive in 2019, only 49% of employees feel comfortable talking to their employers about mental health, and according to a survey by James Wallace, a PHD researcher at Cardiff University, 95% of employees give an alternative explanation to their absence when they are off work for stress. 

In an effort to reduce this stigma and keep employees mentally healthy, it is important that employers are aware of the importance of mental health management at the workplace. This is especially true in today’s world, as the pandemic has meant that many have found it difficult to strike an appropriate balance between managing their personal lives and the world of work, and as such, many work related mental illnesses, such as stress related illnesses, have been exacerbated. 

As such, mental health management should remain a high priority in the agenda of employers, not only because it is important for the success of the business, but also because of their legal obligations to look after the mental health of their employees and have robust procedures in place to manage employee absences. 

What Is Workplace Stress, and How Big of a Problem Is It? 

Whilst many aspects of work can have a positive impact on health and wellbeing, there are other aspects which can negatively impact employees. 

As the Health and Safety Executive summarises: “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work. Stress is not an illness – it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.”

Stress can be caused by a number of factors in the workplace, including: 

  • the level of control an employee has over their job
  • the level of support that each person receives, for example from colleagues and or senior staff members/ pastoral support
  • relationships with colleagues
  • the role of the employee, including the level of seniority
  • any changes that each employee has to deal with
  • what demands have been placed on the employee

Each of these factors can have an effect on employee stress levels. 

So how big of a problem is workplace stress? In short, a huge one. According to a survey from the Health and Safety Executive, one in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point in their life, and according to Mind, one in six workers is dealing with a mental health problem at the moment. 

However, there are serious difficulties in objectively assessing what stress is and, more particularly, how it affects different people. What to one person may be viewed as an adrenalin rush can cause another to experience stress levels that cause harm to health, whether physical or mental. 

It is also important to note that there is a difference between pressure and stress: when a person has a volume of work that they feel is manageable, they experience pressure. Conversely, when the volume is too much and they stop coping, they become stressed. Pressure can be very positive and a motivating factor which helps employees to perform better, whereas stress can develop when an individual is unable to cope with the pressures and demands being placed on them.

Pandemic Related Stress

In addition to the ‘usual’ reasons for stress, the pandemic has had a huge impact on the stress levels of each employee and a number of additional factors have meant that employee mental health has become even more volatile that previously. Such factors include: 

  • working from home
  • juggling work with family, including home schooling
  • worry about job security, especially if you have been furloughed
  • worrying about the economy
  • worrying about your own health and that of family, including the mental health of family members who have been self isolating

Indeed, the added pressures that come from the factors listed above have meant that many have been experiencing ‘burnout.’ Whilst the concept of ‘burnout’ had previously been used in a work context, it has followed us to working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Burnout can happen because of feelings of isolation, not feeling part of a team, with less of the ‘how was your weekend’ sort of discussions. It also is caused by employees not switching off. When working from home there can be a temptation for instance to continue checking emails.

Burnout includes mental and physical exhaustion, and has now been recognised by the World Health Organisation as a medical condition, described as a ‘medical phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. 

Symptoms of burnout can including feeling overwhelmed, drained and unable to meet constant demands. It can also be physically damaging, causing depressed mood, musculoskeletal pain and can be a pre-cursor to cardiovascular diseases. It is considered to be separate from stress and exhaustion because of the emotional turmoil that it can cause, as well as ‘inner agitation’ and frustration. 

How Does Stress Affect Employees? 

Stress affects different people in different ways and it can be difficult to predict how people will balance the demands and pressures placed on them with their ability to cope.

Symptoms can include insomnia, headaches and digestive problems, impaired concentration, fatigue, irritability, aggressive behaviour, poor decision making, increased errors, tearfulness, loss of appetite and obsessional thoughts/behaviour. This can contribute to both depression and anxiety disorders and even increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes and cancer.

In addition to this, stress can lead to a change in mood, eg distrust, anxiety and fear, which can in turn damage relationships at work and home.

Long-term stress can lower the efficiency of immune systems and lead to an increased risk of viral infections, and research has shown that chronic stress at work can even lead to metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. 

What Are Your Obligations as Employers? 

When it was introduced, the main aim of health and safety legislation was a focus on minimising the risks to physical safety of employee. However, increasingly the focus is as much more on employees’ psychological health and welfare. 

Indeed, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 provides a general duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees and the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999 oblige employers to assess nature and scale of risks in workplace.

The Health and Safety Executive expects employers to carry out risk assessments in relation to stress in the same way as it carries out risk assessments in relation to physical risks. Employers risk enforcement action, including improvement notices and prohibition notices if they fail to comply with their health and safety duties and there is also the risk of prosecution in the criminal courts. 

What Can Employers Do To Fulfil Their Obligations? 

In order to be able to manage the wellbeing of your employees it is vital to understand and be able to recognise the signs of their stress, if they are feeling overwhelmed and their inability to cope. Recognising an issue is particularly challenging when employees are working from home or in an environment, such as a school, where staff are restricted to bubbles and there is little or no time to ‘check in’ regularly in an informal way. 

To make sure that mental health issues are picked up on, employers can:

  • carry out regular one-to-one meetings – these are vital to ensure that employers pick up any signs early and are offering the opportunity for employees to be transparent and open about how they are managing their work and personal responsibilities
  • provide training on recognising mental health issues
  • have a comprehensive and up-to-date wellbeing policy for the workplace – this should be more comprehensive than pre-pandemic if possible, and can even include the creation of a specific ‘wellbeing’ page on the intranet, as tackling issues early on will be beneficial in avoiding longer-term health problems
  • point staff in the direction of free online tools, such as podcasts, online mindfulness and healthy living blogs and exercise classes – our website has links to a number of helpful resources
  • consider offering benefits to staff members, such as gym membership discounts, counselling, employee assistance programmes
  • remain open-minded to flexible working requests, even post-pandemic, as it might be useful to review your policy and ensure you are clear how you would approach multiple requests and what you might be able to accommodate 

Active management through robust measures like those suggested above will both reduce your absence levels and also create a culture that supports this ongoing focus on wellbeing going forward. 

How Can You Encourage Employees to Improve Wellbeing?

You can assist employees to help themselves in relation to wellbeing by encouraging: 

  • regular exercise – perhaps don’t schedule meetings over lunchtime where possible to encourage employees to take a break away from their desks
  • a move away from ‘presenteeism’ – effectiveness should be the focus and presenteeism should not be encouraged or expected – if there are any performance issues then they can be managed in line with your policy
  • breaks, for example by scheduling 55 minute meetings

Stress Risk Assessment

Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. 

For those organisations with fewer than five employees, a written risk assessment is not necessary (although we would still recommend that you do so). However, if an organisation has five or more employees, they are required by law to provide written risk assessments. 

The Health & Safety Executive provides risk assessment templates and their website also has some tips and tools to tackle work-related stress, which employers can download for free. 

Managing Absence

Absence management is a complicated area of HR and is a subject in its own right. We provide a very brief summary of how to deal with absences and you should take advice about how to deal with such absences. It is important to be mindful of the importance in managing absence due to mental health correctly, as the following statistics show: 

  • where absence is between 4-12 weeks, there is a 10-40% chance of an employee being off work for a year
  • where absence is 6-12 months, there is a 90% chance of employee never returning to work
  • nearly a million employees a year reach the 4 week sickness absence point

There are serious implications of not managing absences. Considering the statistics above, being proactive and doing what you can to help that employee back to work early will potentially help to avoid a longer absence.

Short Term Absences

To avoid longer term absences, it is important to manage short term absences as effectively and efficiently as possible. If employees start to take short term absences, it is important to use the following tips to manage the absence:

  • Discuss the absence with the employee.
  • Consider any possible underlying cause for the absence– for example, is there an underlying medical cause, or does the employee have either work or personal problems?
  • Are there any reasonable adjustments that the employee might require?
  • Identify improvements required and set a timescale.
  • What are the consequences of the absence, for example if improvements do not materialise, and formal action is taken, it may be that the situation culminates with dismissal.

Long Term Absences

When employee absences are long term, this can be more difficult to manage, and it is important to meet to discuss the situation with the employee and to make sure that your policies are up-to-date. 

It is likely, not only that you will need medical evidence (which will incorporate employer duties under the Access to Medical Reports Act) but may also require the drafting of a comprehensive referral letter to an occupational health professional. 

It is important to remember that the employee should be involved as much as possible, and if it looks like there is no option to return to work, a fair procedure should be followed. Legal advice should be taken in difficult situations. 

Conclusions

Based on the information provided above, we would always recommend that you identify your current risks around mental health in your business, to enable you to plan and implement tools to tackle them appropriately. 

If you have suitable resources to signpost employees to support when they need it and robust procedures to manage any absence issues when they arise then you will be in a strong position. 

If you can create an environment that empowers employees to manage their own mental health, whilst knowing they have the support of their organisation should they need it, then you will create an open and honest culture. This will in turn promote communication and reduce absence levels in the short and longer term. 

If you need advice on any of the issues that have been raised above please do contact us and we would be glad to assist.