In 2020-21, 1.7 million workers suffered from a work-related illness. For 800,000 of them, this was related to stress, depression or anxiety. Before COVID, it was estimated that mental health issues like these cost UK employers up to £45 billion a year. The pandemic has undoubtedly made things worse and, with mental health issues on the rise, workplace stress is now reported as the number one reason for sick days in the UK.
In response, a new campaign called ‘Working Minds’ is calling for a culture change in Britain’s workplaces, asking them to recognise and respond to the signs of stress as routinely as they would manage workplace safety.
Created by the Health and Safety Executive, the campaign brings together a range of tools and support to help businesses and workers understand the best ways to prevent work related stress and to encourage and support good mental health in the workplace. Find out more about the campaign here.
What can we do?
While the issue of mental health and stress at work is often complex, the Working Minds Campaign suggests a five step approach for employers that starts with opening up a conversation.
1. Reach out
Talking about mental health and stress at work may feel awkward, but just starting the conversation is a small but important first step towards creating a healthy, happy workplace. These tools can help you talk about stress with people both individually and as a team:
- Talking Toolkit – taking you through the factors that can affect stress levels at work.
- Return to work tool – for use as part of an individual risk assessment.
- HSE App – guidance on tackling work-related stress direct to your mobile device.
- Stress Risk assessments – examples to use as the basis of conversations and your risk assessment.
Although stress affects us all at different times and in different ways, within the working environment, there are six factors which commonly impact on worker’s stress levels – the demands of the job; the amount of control they have (or don’t have); how well people feel supported; relationships between colleagues; understanding of different roles; and change.
Getting to the cause will come at a later stage, but this step is all about keeping a watch for anything that might be a sign of stress. For instance, perhaps someone is taking more time off or arriving late for work; maybe they’re acting withdrawn, nervous or displaying mood swings; perhaps you can see they’ve lost some of their usual motivation, commitment and confidence? If there is stress across a team, you might notice things like people having more arguments, high staff turnover or increased sickness absence.
If you spot the signs of stress or someone tells you they’re experiencing stress or another mental health problem, this is when the conversation needs to turn towards identifying the cause and taking action to remedy the situation.
Listen to what’s being said and work together with the person affected to come up with solutions. That might mean having to make changes within the workplace to address specific drivers of stress or perhaps implementing some training that ease the problem.
Talking is key to improving so always encourage the person to talk to someone about how they are feeling (a manager, GP or someone they feel they can trust).
While diagnosing or treating stress isn’t an employers responsibility, protecting employees from stress is. So, when issues have been raised and action taken, the next step should be to review how things are going.
Reflect on the changes or support you’ve provided and consider whether they have actually made a difference. Does anything need tweaking or are bigger changes needed? When should you be checking in again?
Make it routine to ask how people are and talk about stress, for instance by building this into 1-1 supervisions or as part of training days. In construction, Toolbox Talks are a great opportunity to discuss issues about stress and how to prevent it.
By taking regular opportunities to check-in on mental health and stress levels, these kind of conversations can become less awkward or intimidating. That makes it much easier for people to open up about what they are experiencing and could help prevent long-term serious health issues.
If you need help
If you’re looking for support with a mental health issue like stress or anxiety, here are three further sources of help:
Get Your Mind Plan – This free tool from the NHS can provide you with a plan and tips to help you deal with stress and anxiety, improve your sleep, boost your mood and feel more in control.
Mind helplines – Information and support by phone and email from the charity, MIND.
Quick tips for better mental health (part 2 – stress) – A blog we wrote in 2019 with tips about recognising and managing stress.
Feature image: Freepik