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Mental Health Wellbeing – how Health and Safety departments can manage the stress

We examine the causes of workplace stress and discuss how you can approach those who are struggling.

Its official – improved mental health is good for business according to numerous independent studies. But given the scale of the mental health problem globally, how can business leaders tackle it without needing therapy themselves?

Around 17 million working days are lost globally to ill health caused by stress, anxiety and depression every year. A UK survey suggests that 79% of workers now claim to be stressed at work. This figure has grown fast, by at least 20% over the last 3 years.

The price of this problem of epidemic proportions is enormous: in the UK a recent survey by Deloitte suggests the cost to UK businesses is up to a massive £56 billion per year. HSE figures put mental health issues as responsible for 50% of all sick days taken off work.

What causes workplace stress?

According to Breathe, HR software consultants, workplace stress can be triggered by:

Of course, stress may come from many sources other than, or in addition to, the workplace, and these outside sources are beyond the control of the employer.

Excessively high workloads and tight deadlines Workplace changes Conflict with other team members
Long working hours Boring job content Toxic company culture
Lack of managerial support Insufficient workloads and underused skills Bad management/leadership
Role uncertainty Lack of proper resources/equipment Poor physical working environments
Workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination Poor working relationships Unequal pay
Lack of promotional opportunities Micromanagement

The challenge of dealing with stress in the workplace.

Stress can exist for weeks, months or years. It is the body’s response to pressure and can come about as a slow accumulation of responsibilities, that we feel we can cope with… Until we can’t.

Spotting and helping workers before they reach that breaking point is vital to their mental wellbeing and requires skills which you may not be trained in but are increasingly valuable to be aware of in the workplace. According to Mind, stressed workers may show the following physical symptoms when they are reaching breaking point:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Panic attacks
  • Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
  • Fatigue (often due to sleep problems)
  • Muscle aches and headaches
  • Chest pains and high blood pressure
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Digestive issues
  • Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Developing rashes or itchy skin
  • Sweating
  • Existing physical health problems getting worse

Five key areas

Here are five key areas you may want to consider before approaching someone you think is struggling:

  1. Culture: Foster a clear environment of respect, where people are comfortable to come forward and will not feel judged.

  2. Listen: You are not there to diagnose. Notice changes and spot distress and make the space for the person involved to ask for help.

  3. Interest: If you are unsure as to what to say, there are some useful conversation openers available online – try the leading questions listed under ‘ Show Interest’ in this article from Nuffield Health.

  4. Patience: Allow the person time, in a confidential space, where they can feel safe enough to talk.

  5. Support: Support needs to be ongoing. Immediate help might include suggestions of outside agencies such as the Samaritans – keep a list of useful numbers handy. We’ve put some at the foot of this article. Longer term support could include offering reasonable adjustments, effective changes which will not be too disruptive, such as adapting workload or working patterns, helping with prioritisation and communication of expectations.

Further suggestions:

Dealing with a stress response can sometimes be helped by some of the following self-help suggestions. However, think before proposing these, in case any of them are inappropriate to the issues involved.

  • Exercise
  • Self Care
  • Treats
  • Relaxation
  • Mindfulness
  • Socialising
  • Diet (i.e. balance sugar and limit caffeine)
  • Sleep
  • Getting outside into nature
  • Work Life balance
  • Limiting time on social media

…the future of mental well-being in the workplace:

Businesses have now woken up to the need to not only offer support to those suffering but to implement preventative measures. University led studies in the UK and US offer evidence that programs, processes and systems which support both physical health and mental health are very good business, offering a significant return on investment.

A 2023 article in Forbes magazine also suggests that the key to great wellbeing, after supporting physical health, is to ensure great leadership (toxic leadership has been shown to increase rates of depression) and to offer flexibility (those with greater control over their work content and hours display more wellbeing and job satisfaction). Both of these attributes would deal with many of the stress factor on the list above and would certainly foster an open environment where issues with stress can be discussed candidly.

And going further than this, a recent study published by the London School of Economics suggests that rather than focussing on solving health problems with general wellness programmes, it is more important to simply zone in on ‘Psychological Safety’. Dealing with the list of stress sources detailed above, at source, rather than responding to their negative effects, by building whole teams with mutual confidence, trust and respect, will provide the decent, low stress working environment that staff really want and need.

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