Stress: How can we tackle this in the workplace?


Yesterday marked National Stress Awareness Day. More than 12 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, according to the Health and Safety Executive. We’re aware of the problem – but what can employers do to get to grips with this mental health crisis in the workplace?

Here, Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF, discusses how we can take the conversation around mental health forward. He identifies the steps organisations should take to support employee wellbeing and prevent this epidemic of poor mental health continuing to spread throughout the workplace.

In a typical organisation, 40 percent of its absences today will be as a consequence of poor mental health – in the next three years, this will rise to 70 percent.

We know that people find it difficult to get diagnosed and treated by the NHS, which itself is struggling to cope. In fact, each day in the UK, 150 mentally ill children are being turned away by NHS Mental Health Trusts because they simply don’t have the resources to treat them. These children, who don’t receive the treatment they need, will become the mentally ill adults of the future.

We also know that there are lots of people dealing with mental health issues. Life is increasingly demanding, and while the stigma around mental health remains, many people simply will not disclose or declare issues that they are dealing with. Add all these facts together, and this will lead to what is essentially a volcanic eruption of employers, unable to cope and unaware of where help is available.

The impact of business culture on employee stress

There are four key points that fall under cultural or organisational measures when deciding on an employer’s role in supporting employee wellbeing: 

  1. Provide support, and measure if it actually works

Organisations should value mental health and wellbeing as assets, rather than problems. This starts at board level, where mental health should not only be on the agenda, but also attitudes should be measured throughout the organisation. This allows for benchmarking to take place, and policies to be reviewed and changed. This should be similar to a risk assessment, where a mental health policy is then developed, which celebrates best practice and meets the needs of the organisation.   

  1. Line managers must be trained for the front line

Line managers interact with employees day-in and day-out, and can spot early warning signs first-hand. However, while line mangers may spot the symptoms of a colleague dealing with stress or a mental health issue, often they have no idea what to do next. 

Line managers must be trained to deal with mental health issues as they arise. This should include providing support, as well as helping to address either stigma or discrimination. A skills audit is required as part of the development of a mental health strategy, which must look at the foundations of good mental health – including building resilience, coaching, sign-posting to help with management of any issues, and help with finding support options. These foundations can be put in place by line managers via robust training. 

  1. Address discrimination

Organisations need to address discrimination and support disclosure, to ensure that employees are encouraged to come forward and say ‘I’m not well’. To establish this culture among the workforce takes a high level of commitment – it’s not a change that will happen overnight. Organisations must put in place mental health champions, as well as mental health first-aiders, that can create an open culture and educate staff on how to come forward. A disclosure policy would actively support the message ‘it’s ok to come forward’, as well as giving clear guidelines for how and when to speak up.   

  1. Value those who have experience of mental health

Those who have been affected by mental health issues first-hand, and come out the other side, must be valued – even actively recruited. They can prove that an organisation does not discriminate, and provides a massive opportunity to illustrate diversity and inclusion. Employees can learn from their colleagues who have lived through these experiences, and even help to facilitate support groups or facilities to help other colleagues.

In other words, create a culture where an organisation clearly recognises that a person with experience of mental health issues can be an asset to the business.

‘An EAP with teeth’

Pragmatically, there is more that can be done. Organisations must put in place practical measures to support employees at the first sign of a mental health-related issue.

Employers must provide an EAP that offers much more than the standard option available. There must be a link between the EAP provider and the organisation’s occupational health service, if this is to be an effective support for employees.

Take, for example, an employee who alleges they are being harassed by their manager and are distressed. The EAP will only deal with the consequences, namely the stress caused by the situation. This may be via phone or face-to face counselling, but the primary problem won’t be addressed, unless the EAP provider is connected to the organisation’s occupational health provider. If connected, the EAP provider can refer that person to the OH provider to investigate the primary issue. In other words, this results in a joined-up approach to tackling poor mental health in the workplace.

Organisations need to provide an EAP programme that is robust. The employer must invest in financing treatments, because there is no point identifying somebody if you can’t then do something about it. Let’s talk about the problem, identify those people who need help and get them well again. I’ll come back to a phrase I’ve used a lot: ‘the cost of prevention is much less than the cost of non-intervention’.