Beating the back to work blues

Moving Crowds 4

The first journey into work after the Christmas break has to be one of the most painful journeys of the year. Overfed, possibly hungover, still angry at that sly comment your distant relative made across the dinner table a week ago, you and many others return to work at the start of January with the glow of the next set of bank holidays seeming very far in the distance (FYI the next bank holiday is Good Friday on 14th April – yes, APRIL *sobs*).

It’s no surprise then, that January is the time of the year that sees the highest rates of divorce. This is the month heralding some of the highest stress rates of the year, and is the lowest point in the calendar for many people who face daily battles with mental health. A researcher at Cardiff University, Dr Cliff Arnall has even created a formula to work out that 24th January is the “most depressing day of the year”.

Mental health takes centre stage at work

It’s therefore apt that as many of us spend much of our time at work, there has been an increasing recognition of the role of employers in supporting mental health.

In October 2016, Business in the Community published its 2016 Mental Health at Work report, which included a toolkit for employers. The report highlights the damage that concealing their condition can do to people with mental health problems, as well as the level of support that should be made available to employees to help promote positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Recommendations made in the report include:

  • Talk – Organisations and employers should break the culture of silence that surrounds mental health, particularly in the workplace by talking the Time to change employers pledge
  • Train – Organisations and employers should invest in training to ensure basic mental health literacy for all employees in all areas of the business
  • Take action – Organisations and employers should “close the gap” by asking all staff about their experiences of their own mental health at work and how any issues have been dealt with. Understanding the perceptions that staff have of how the company supports mental health generally across the organisation, can help identify steps to improve/ change practice if necessary.

Employers role in removing stigma

Ensuring good mental health in the workplace affects all levels of staff, from senior management to the newest members of staff who are still training or serving a probationary period. Multiple reports, including those by ACAS, CIPD, MIND and The Work Foundation, have stressed the importance of employers setting an example to their staff. That includes senior staff recognising when they need to take time to support their mental wellbeing too.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence Management Report for 2013, showed that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace. The report also showed that it impacts staff at all levels:

  • 40% of respondents said that stress-related absence increased over the past year for the workforce as a whole
  • 20% said it increased for managers
  • 1 in 8 reported a rise for senior managers
  • Only 44% would feel confident enough to disclose unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager.

The report suggested that if senior managers acknowledged their own mental health issues, it would remove some of the stigma associated with asking for help with mental health in the workplace. However, doing this requires a significant culture shift in how many organisations are run – which could take years. The Work Foundation, commenting on the 2016 version of the CIPD report, found that:

“Effective management of mental health in the workplace can save around 30% of costs felt by employers.  Line managers have a really important role to play in creating an environment where employees feel safe to disclose with the knowledge that the organisation will do something to help them.  Managers need to have a positive employment relationship where open and honest conversations can be had to discuss any required adjustments and provide that supportive environment.”

Using “blue Monday” to initiate conversations on mental health

This year “Blue Monday” falls on the 16th January. It may be called the worst Monday of the year, but employers are being encouraged to use the publicity around it to create opportunities for employees to discuss mental health in the workplace.

Questions to ask could be: what makes them stressed, what makes them anxious, how can the office environment be changed to improve the wellbeing of employees? There are also ideas for activities to help staff “beat the blues”, including lunchtime exercise, healthy eating and talking to colleagues about things other than work.

Specific sectors have also begun to initiate schemes to try to improve mental health and well being. Mates in Mind is a programme to be launched in early 2017 by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council. Modelled on an Australian programme, it is a sector-wide programme intended to help improve and promote positive mental health across the construction industry in the UK.

In social work, too, informal peer mentoring schemes have sprung up organically in many offices, with co-workers giving each other support when they need it, often in an informal capacity. More formal schemes have been set up to help social workers monitor and feel safe when talking about their mental health to colleagues and superiors. Feedback indicates that the low rate of retention of social workers is, in part, due to stress caused by secondary trauma or excessive caseloads.

 

So, as we trudge back to our desks for the first working days after Christmas, it is perhaps worth keeping some of these ideas in mind. Employers are keen to talk about mental health, but they also need the input of staff in order for them to work.

Putting some of these ideas into practice, may also go some way to improving the situation of many with hidden mental health conditions in the workplace who don’t feel confident enough to speak openly about it. We needn’t wait for the next bank holiday to improve our mood, small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing in the workplace!


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other workplace mental health articles: 

Managing mental ill health in the workplace

Ending the stigma around anxiety

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