Getting people thriving with good mental health in the workplace

9 May 2017

Our new research shows that most of us experience something we’d describe as a mental health problem at some time. Our research also showed that just 13% of the UK population has a high level of good mental health – that’s too low and it’s time we recognised and addressed the barriers that prevent some people from thriving.

Work is a big part of most adults' lives – and therefore our workplaces are a key setting for understanding and addressing our mental health. In our research study Added value: mental health as a workplace asset at the end of 2016, 86% of respondents agreed that their job and being at work was important to protecting and maintaining their mental health – with people who had experienced mental health problems most likely to agree. We believe in workplaces where everyone, regardless of their backstory, can thrive. 

We believe it is time to turn the argument on workplace mental health from one of burden and cost, to one of recognising the value and the potential gain from protecting and improving mental health at work. The economic argument supports this, with people working with a mental health problem estimated to be responsible for 12.1% of the UK’s GDP – that’s £226 billion of value. This is nine times greater than the still substantial £25 billion cost of lost productivity arising from mental ill health. We need to be mindful of the cost – but also if we are bottom-line focused, just as concerned with the potential risks of not acting to prevent distress.

We know that when our working life supports our ability to thrive, the identity, income and purpose that it brings can be good for our mental health. We also know that challenging working conditions can be toxic to our mental health and we may lose the mental health benefits work can bring.

The world of work is changing. In that change, and pressure to become leaner, there are hazards for mental health and wellbeing, and a risk that some people can be left behind. We want to see a labour market which includes everyone who wants to be a part of it, and recognises and addresses challenges before they become toxic. To do that we need to understand and address the causes of mental health problems and ensure that working life both supports good mental health and addresses risk factors.

In a recent meta review, which I reported for The Mental Elf,  Samuel Harvey and colleagues examined the evidence for work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Based on the findings of the review, the authors present a new, unifying model of psychosocial risk factors in the workplace (see below) - perhaps by pro-actively balancing these factors we can find the levers for creating thriving workplaces:

Reproduced from Occup Environ Med,  Harvey SB, Modini M, Joyce S, et al, 74:301-310, 2017 with permission from BMJ Publishing Group Ltd.

So what do we need to do to enable people to thrive at work?

In truth there are a range of personal, workplace and societal factors that need to be factored into the debate on workplace mental health. 

But that's like saying that a cake is a blend of eggs, flour and sugar - it's how you bring it all together that matters. 

At a personal level, we all bring talents and challenges to everything we do in life, including our work. There are a number of evidence-based things we can do to boost our mental health and prepare us for the challenges life throws at us. Improving our sleep, improving our diet, our relationships, taking more exercise, practicing mindfulness - even doing good for others can all help us protect and improve our mental health. Where employers can support and incentivise these activities with employee benefits and time, it is likely that mental health will improve. Even so, we also need to understand that not everybody is able to adopt these strategies without help and support.

Chris O'Sullivan on the panel at KPMG's thriving in the workplace event to mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017

Today we are aware of so many examples of employers that have taken steps to address mental health across the business, with outstanding examples such as KPMG UK, who are running over 40 events this week across the UK business and encouraging staff to take 30 minutes out of their working week to do something for their mental health as part of a commitment to mental health in the business.

We have worked with businesses such as Royal Mail Group, who worked with us to create a suite of videos for staff that focused on mental health in a holistic way. We need to celebrate the work that’s happening to create and grow mentally healthy workplaces across the UK. We see the workplace, and the positon that workplaces have in communities as key to our call for creating a national programme for improving mental health in communities. We also need to do more to understand how we share the learning often forged in large businesses at the cutting edge, with small businesses in which so many of us work. 

We can talk about talking, and coming forward when you have a problem – but the reality is still that for many people, that isn’t safe or helpful. We must address discrimination at work, and ensure that there are support services that people can access quickly, effectively and without prejudice.

If we want to encourage disclosure, there must be a 'disclosure premium', where those of us with a lived experience understand that coming forward and bringing our whole selves to work is not going to result in dismissal, discrimination or even destitution.

In our recent research report Added Value we asked over 2,000 respondents to list their top priorities for addressing mental health at work - managers and staff, with and without personal experience of mental ill health. The top three desired actions were the same across the board:

  1. Creating workplace culture that supports mental health and enables people to seek help when they need it
  2. Commitment from senior leadership to support mental health and wellbeing in the company
  3. Clear mental health policies within the company that are implemented at all levels.

Whilst there is a wealth of good evidence on mental health at work, we still have many challenges and unanswered questions.

We need to recognise that many people are working in rapidly changing, sometimes hostile environments where the risk of psychological injury is high. We need to recognise that the riskiest jobs for mental health - those with the most demands and the least control, the least reward per effort, and where the organisational justice is negligible are those often occupied by people with the highest risk of mental health problems.  

We need to know more about the mental health impact of precarious employment, working multiple jobs, or the effect of compulsion into any employment arising from social security policy if we are to understand the role of work in both addressing and perpetuating mental health inequalities. 

These unexplored factors are key in our call for better mental health research, to help us understand and address the causes of mental ill health both in work and around work.

This week, we’ll be speaking at a number of workplaces about what thriving means to them – and how workplaces can best commit to ensuring that their people are able to thrive when possible. If you’d like to talk to us about our workplace programmes, CSR links, and corporate partnerships please get in touch by emailing Chris O'Sullivan at cosullivan@mentalhealth.org.uk.

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We want to ensure that all workplaces in the UK support good mental health and create environments where their employees can thrive. We need your help to make this happen. Please consider a donation today.

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