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Mental Health Awareness Week: Why work and well-being campaigns are so annoying

It is Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 and this year’s theme is stress. In the first of a two-part blog, we look at how organisations can effectively address stress at work to positively impact employee health, productivity and their ability to cope.

High-earning managers and professionals are much more likely to have a drinking problem than those on an average wage, according to new statistics from NHS Digital and the Office for National Statistics.

While professionals are far less likely to believe they are the classic “problem drinker”, maybe it’s worth asking if their drinking is not just a result of higher disposable income?

An extraordinary longitudinal study of 15,000 Finnish public-sector workers has found that employees who considered that their workplace treated them poorly – they reported poor organisational justice – were 1.2 times more likely to have become heavy drinkers when they were re-surveyed three years later, compared to colleagues reporting high organisational justice.

So, how you are treated in the workplace can have an impact on heavy drinking in the future. In fact, the way we manage, organise and design work can have a direct and indirect impact on people’s health, productivity and ability to cope.

The way we manage, organise and design work can have a direct and indirect impact on people’s health, productivity and ability to cope.

In another study, British civil servants aged between 35 and 55 who felt they had low control over their workload and little opportunity to participate in decision-making were almost 2.4 times more likely to suffer coronary heart disease further down the line.

And finally, a systematic review of 25 European, American and Australian studies covering more than 1 million people found that workers reporting long working hours (more than 55 hours a week compared to 35-40 hours a week) were almost 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke in the average follow-up time of 7.2 years.

The study also found that those working long hours were almost 1.2 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than those working 35-40 hours a week.

Still at your desk?

The studies above are just a fraction of the high-quality evidence that workplace stress is a killer. It’s also killing profits: according to the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the cost of mental illness for an organisation with 1,000 employees is estimated at more than £835,000 every year.

So, as it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, what’s the answer?

Let’s first remind ourselves that countless studies show that work is actually good for us. It often provides a level of meaning and purpose that we flawed humans struggle to find elsewhere in our lives. Policy-level studies around the world have highlighted “good work”, “fair employment” and “decent work” as paradigms for companies to aim for.

Meanwhile, a group of international applied psychologists recently came up with a set of emerging “psychosocial” risks in the workplace. You’ll probably recognise several:
• work intensification
• long working hours
• high emotional demands at work
• poor work/life balance
• feelings of job insecurity
• worker vulnerability in the face of globalisation, and
• LEAN production and outsourcing.

Of course, work stress doesn’t exist in a vacuum, our outlook and our social circumstances also matter. Personality traits such as self-esteem, optimism, belief in yourself and a sense of coherence about the world can help people cope with stress at work. In addition, social factors such as support from a loving family and good friends can also make a huge difference.

To do their bit to combat stress during Mental Health Awareness Week, many companies will have bought in services such as employee assistance programmes, mindfulness and yoga classes and launched healthy eating campaigns. You know the sort of thing.

Unfortunately, as seemingly blameless as these programmes are, they are little more than a distraction and the most they offer is to ease the symptoms of stress. Research also suggests they will probably only benefit those already actively managing their stress – what about the people too busy and stressed to find time for mindfulness classes?

And here’s the sting; the evidence shows that the benefits of work-sponsored well-being and healthy-living schemes tend to be short-lived. All in all, while these schemes might satisfy HR metrics, they aren’t looking good from a return on investment point of view.

Instead of these “sticking plaster” solutions and pushing the problem on HR, business leaders should be looking at alleviating the causes of stress, not just the symptoms.

An “everyman” view emerged in a tweet that quickly went viral a week ago and the replies to it uncovered the extent of UK worker annoyance at well-meaning work and well-being initiatives.

While we know that the tyranny of delivering shareholder value and the pressures of the global marketplace require organisations to emphasise productivity against a backdrop of change, downsizing and rationalisation, there’s still effective ways to address stress at work.

The way work itself is organised, designed and managed; and the “always on” culture could be taken much more seriously by business. Known as “work directed” or “job directed” interventions, there are concrete changes organisational leaders can prioritise to combat the stress levels in their organisations. And let’s not forget, by law (UK and EC Directives) they have an obligation to provide a safe, working environment that minimises the risk of stress-related illness to employees.

Businesses could look at changing the way jobs and tasks are designed. This could mean changing the context that work is carried out in (for example a long-hours culture), the size of the workload, and provide greater role clarity. Lastly, they could look at encouraging better social relationships in the workplace – both vertical (manager/team member) and with peers.

And succeeding in these efforts will mean more employee involvement in solutions, developing managers’ skills in creating a “good work” environment, and a new perspective for leaders to consider too. I’ll look at these in more detail in the second part of this blog.

Thank you to the Organisational Psychology Department at Birkbeck, University of London for drawing my attention to much of the material used in this article.

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