Managing Director DeltaNet International
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Workplace stress on the rise: what can the L&D sector learn from the latest HSE report?

Recent figures show that workplace stress, anxiety and depression has increased, so isn’t it about time we trained employees in how to talk about these issues more constructively?

13th Jan 2020
Managing Director DeltaNet International
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stressed man at his desk at work
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The HSE recently published its health and safety at work report 2018/19, a revealing document that chronicles work related injuries and ill health for the year, breaking incidents down by industry and detailing the economic impact incurred.

It’s estimated that mental health cost the UK economy close to £35bn in 2018, largely due to reduced productivity.

In addition, the report compares the UK with other European countries and presents statistics on the number of companies that have been prosecuted as a result of a negligent approach to health and safety at work.

Stress, anxiety, and depression on the rise

The report confirmed that we are more stressed, anxious and depressed than ever. Whilst there were 595,000 reported cases in 2017-18, the latest report showed this had increased gradually to 602,000 across 2018-19, leaving many in our industry to ask, what can we do to stop the rise?

It’s estimated that mental health cost the UK economy close to £35bn in 2018, largely due to reduced productivity. That’s because the enduring stigma surrounding mental health means workers experiencing problems are more likely to suffer in silence, turning up to work in a display of presenteeism that signals bad news all round.

Not only are employers losing out on profits this way, but also employees – under pressure to perform and with spiralling workloads – could end up losing their jobs.

The training industry’s response

It’s well known that, as employers, we owe a duty of care to our staff. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons H&S training exists – all reasonable steps must be taken to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of those in our employment.

Rising cases of job-related stress, depression, and anxiety, however, seem to indicate mental health is still in the shadows when it comes to the UK workforce.

Following a debate held in parliament on legislative change surrounding mental health at work (an action which sought to put physical and mental health on equal footing), the training industry’s response to mental wellbeing ought to raise both awareness and esteem on the matter.

It’s up to business leaders and their training managers to continually reinforce the positive behavioural change they want to see, taking training away from being merely a ‘box-ticking’ exercise to being the first step towards real change.

For example, some of the main causes of poor mental health cited in the report include workload and lack of support. This indicates that mental health initiatives are not yet normalised amongst company leaders who are either missing the warning signs of deteriorating mental health, or else shrugging them off.

Other causes of poor mental health cited in the report included violence, threats, and bullying – all issues that can spiral out of control unless clear measures are implemented to undermine the policies and culture permitting these behaviours to thrive.

After all, in a work environment where staff aren’t made aware of their rights, aren’t empowered to recognise acceptable versus unacceptable confrontation, or aren’t encouraged to speak up about emotional distress (or wouldn’t be heard if they did), how can we expect things to change?

Continued education and awareness

Whilst I’m an advocate of awareness training to raise the profile of mental health at work, it’s but one piece of the puzzle when it comes to long-term change.

We can’t forget that in some workplaces cultures of silence surrounding mental health could have built up over decades. It’s up to business leaders and their training managers to continually reinforce the positive behavioural change they want to see, taking training away from being merely a ‘box-ticking’ exercise to being the first step towards real change.

The following strategies are good starting points. 

Set the tone from the top

Your staff need to know that their leaders are on board with the programme and won’t tolerate the kinds of behaviours detailed in the HSE report that have led to workplace stress, anxiety, and depression.

It’s important that organisations include their staff in the mental health conversation. 

As well as taking your employees’ wellbeing seriously, leaders should also demonstrate healthy behaviour themselves. It might be as simple as the MD taking a flexible approach to work so as to make time for personal/family commitments, or it could be a line manager taking a swift, firm stance on aggressive behaviour.

Whatever form this sort of positive behavioural modelling takes, setting a strong and consistent tone from the top will go a long way towards setting standards of personal care at your organisation and showcasing your expectations when it comes to breaking the silence.  

Seek to understand

Take an honest look at how your staff are treated by their colleagues. Are their workloads achievable? Do they enjoy coming to work? Are they afraid to have a bit of fun during work hours? Do they get the support and encouragement they need? Are there strained relationships?

If you’re unaware that any mental wellbeing issues exist in your company, then develop an investigative approach and ask yourself the hard questions. If necessary, hire outside consultants to evaluate issues from an objective viewpoint.

Your goal should be to increase your understanding of existing issues and address them in a way that benefits your entire employee base.

Involve your employees

It’s important that organisations include their staff in the mental health conversation. Following up training by organising regular wellbeing committees comprised of various team members can, for example, help break cultures of silence by encouraging open communication on the subject between staff at different levels.

It’s important once you’ve helped empower your staff to talk about mental health issues that they know who to turn to for support and encouragement during times of need.

Putting training into action in this way helps staff see that you’re serious about their wellbeing and encourages them to play an active role in looking after their mental health.

Talking in small opinion groups (seven people or less) puts people at ease – especially quieter members of staff who may not usually speak up. This means it’s more likely the group’s observations will be well rounded and reflective of the entire organisation.  

Create a support hierarchy

It’s important once you’ve helped empower your staff to talk about mental health issues that they know who to turn to for support and encouragement during times of need.

Everyone at your organisation benefits from de-stigmatising mental health, but it might also help to train key staff members (e.g. line managers) in mental health first aid.

Similar to physical first aiders, mental first aiders will be on hand as a first port of call for staff experiencing mental health issues or emotional distress. Trained to listen and communicate non-judgementally, mental health first aiders can spot the warning signs and symptoms for a range of mental health conditions and encourage staff members to seek appropriate professional support if necessary.

We’ve seen this approach take shape at companies like WHSmith that have signed the Time to Change employer pledge. The pledge involves a plan of activity designed to change the way we think about mental health in the workplace and encourage people to ask for help if they need it.

Tackling workplace stress, anxiety, and depression is more than a good PR exercise. It’s just as important as any other function your business needs to be successful and continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.

Hiring good people managers who understand the importance of this topic for the good of the business, and who share values of empathy, support, and listening-skills, is essential. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert to talk about mental health – just be ready to have regular conversations.

Interested in this topic? Read Why you need to train managers and leaders as part of your mental health strategy.

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