People Management poll shows problem still growing despite more willingness to talk
The state of mental health among UK employees has deteriorated, according to a People Management survey of HR professionals that suggests organisations’ efforts to tackle stress, depression and associated conditions may be missing the mark.
Almost half (43 per cent) of the 391 readers polled for a focus on mental health issues in PM’s July issue felt that the overall level of mental well-being among their staff had got worse in the past two years. Only 15 per cent felt it had improved, while 51 per cent said the number of working days lost to mental health issues had increased over the same period.
The findings point to an inability to tackle the root causes of mental ill-health.
“I thought we’d see reported mental health problems falling by now,” said Dr Jill Miller, CIPD research adviser, who added that the broader CIPD Absence Management Survey backs up the troubling trend. The CIPD’s figures show a constant climb in reported mental ill-health every year since 2010.
While Miller suggests increased willingness to talk about mental ill-health is a factor in its prevalence – 45 per cent of People Management respondents said staff were more likely to open up than two years ago – and wider economic considerations should also be factored in, organisational efforts to tackle the issue are clearly failing. All those polled offered some kind of formal support to those with mental health issues, from phased returns to work (reported by 95 per cent) to work assessments (88 per cent) and occupational health (87 per cent).
“Organisations might provide good well-being benefits, but employees might not know about them or be aware of how to access them,” said Miller. “When it comes to counseling, for example, it can be difficult to ask about it.”
She said desk drops of useful phone numbers may be a good practical starting point, but – like other experts who contributed to People Management’s feature article – Miller believes more fundamental causal issues have been ignored for too long.
“Things like job design, development opportunities and meaningful work all have a role to play. Workload is key – it’s the number one cause of work-related stress – and presenteeism remains quite high. Our recent Employee Outlook Survey said people didn’t want colleagues to have to pick up their work, or to just come back to more work themselves the next day.”
Stress – which is reported in 88 per cent of organisations – is followed by depression (85 per cent) and anxiety (83 per cent) as the most common manifestation of mental ill-health.
It’s a finding that’s familiar for confectionery giant Mars, which began to see higher levels of mental-health-related absence in its sales force in late 2011.
"We were in recession, the external sales environment was tough and this was causing tensions at home," said Julie Digby, vice-president people and organisation. "We introduced resilience workshops to help people cope with the changing world, identify the sources of their stress and suggested coping mechanisms to give them a greater sense of control."
A year later, mental health-related absence had almost disappeared, and employees not only reported better sleep and reduced anxiety but also improved work performance and productivity.
But according to Miller, this kind of holistic approach to the topic is relatively rare.
“For HR, the question has to be whether well-being is part of your people approach or a bolt-on,” she said.
“Think creatively about how you manage different demands inside and outside work, about recruitment, job design and the type of decisions people are asked to make in the business.”
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