Why are we missing the mark on mental health at work?

20th March by Lee Robertson

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88 per cent of people believe stress at work can significantly decrease quality of life. 61 per cent agree experiencing stress debilitates performance and productivity and 56 per cent agree experiencing stress inhibits learning and growth.

When faced with statistics like this, are we suffering from a collective moral callousness? Why are we not asking ourselves, why is work becoming a test of endurance for workers?

These stats, taken from Indeed’s Work Wellbeing 2022 Insights Report, are just the tip of the iceberg. Without fail, similar studies are released every month. With unquestionable evidence mounting ever higher, we look at some of the contributing factors and how unhealthy workplace environments are contributing to what is now being termed “The Great Exhaustion.”

Depression is a by-product of workplace conditions that need to change

After decades of study, there is still no clear evidence that serotonin levels or serotonin activity are responsible for depression according to an umbrella review of research conducted by University College London (UCL) scientists.

Published in 2022, the researchers said their ‘findings were important as studies show that as 80 per cent or more of the public believes that depression is caused by low serotonin or a chemical imbalance’. As reported in ScienceDaily.com, ‘a growing number of scientists and professional bodies are recognising the chemical imbalance framing as an over-simplification’.

And therein lies a problem because as a society, our understanding of mental health issues tends to be concerned with locating the problem inside the person and to ignore the ultimate cause of their distress.

We know from the World Health Organization (WHO) that there is a direct correlation between decent work and good mental health. It has done a huge amount of work around understanding how poor working environments with factors such as inequality, excessive workloads, discrimination, low job control and job insecurity pose a risk to mental health.

So looking at data, such Kooth’s Missing the Mark report where 50 per cent of people show signs of being at risk of depression or Indeed’s Working on Wellbeing where six in 10 UK workers (59%) are either facing mental health challenges right now, or have done in the past, we can see some workplaces pose problems.

As the authors say in Indeed’s Working on Wellbeing report, ‘every company should see this as a metaphorical distress flare.’

We are missing metrics on how employees feel at work

In Jon Clifton’s eye-opener book Blind Spot, the subject is the rising unhappiness that leaders didn’t see happening. According to him and his team at Gallup, people feel more anger, sadness, pain, worry and stress than ever before.

They argue that is because while leaders pay more attention to measures like GDP and unemployment, none of them actually track their citizens’ wellbeing. Blind Spot makes the case that leaders should measure and quantify wellbeing and happiness because the problem stems from an absence of metrics on the quality of someone’s job.

Gallup reasons that in the best-run companies, 73 per cent of workers are emotionally engaged and thriving at work which is more than three times the global average of 20 per cent.

According to Clifton, workers have two kinds of basic needs – rational and emotional. Rational relates to a safe job with good pay and benefits. As outlined in Blind Spot ‘when a worker’s emotional needs are met, they are in a job where they feel recognised, that allows for their development and plays to their strengths. The pinnacle of meeting a worker’s emotional needs is when they feel cared about. But that isn’t happening.’

One of the biggest learnings from Blind Spot is that 62 per cent of workers globally are emotionally detached from work and 18 per cent are downright miserable.

Meaningful change has to be made and it has to start with the predilection of some leaders to ‘be the boss’ which is where things often start to go wrong. The traditional top-down way of leading, which is a hallmark of a command-and-control environment, is damaging to worker wellbeing, happiness and engagement.

70 per cent of what determines a worker’s emotional attachment to their job depends on their manager. So it is vital that managers and leaders learn to prioritise worker wellbeing and foster a positive stress mindset. Those who lead others who are armed with coaching skills will be best placed to have regular and impactful conversations with their teams and be able to create the optimum dynamics where their teams can thrive.

Wellbeing is a win-win business strategy

WHO tells us that globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. We are also informed in Indeed’s Work Wellbeing 2022 Insights Report, that while 52 per cent of their respondents say that their company believes employee wellbeing equals business success, only 32 per cent of companies actually prioritise wellbeing over profit.

Stress, depression and anxiety all pose a clear financial burden for employers, so they need be thinking about wellbeing as part of their overall strategy.

Studies like Deloitte’s Mental health and employers highlight how wellbeing investment provides a good return for organisations. Deloitte ascertains that employers see a return of £5.30 on average for every £1 invested in staff mental health. In addition, an extensive study conducted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and BT into happiness and productivity discovered that workers are 13 per cent more productive when happy.

Karen Smart, head of consultancy for the AoEC’s coaching for companies service says: “Change is still too slow. There are many measurable upsides for businesses when it comes to looking after the wellbeing of employees. Cultivating a culture of wellbeing is important for all organisations who want to continue enjoying prosperity. Employers who excel in appreciating and recognising the contributions of their staff are those who put purpose, trust, inclusion and belonging ahead of profit. Better understanding what your employees value and giving leaders and managers the toolkit to empower them, can positively impact on the organisation’s bottom line. So by advancing your people, you are advancing the business at the same time.”