Dealing with stress and mental health problems in the workplace

Stress and mental health issues can be difficult to spot and deal with, so a strategy is required says Alison Coleman

Given the current climate of economic gloom, with fears over job cuts, a housing slump and rising living costs, it is hardly surprising if stress and anxiety levels among staff are rising. But with many employees reluctant to be open about their stress and mental health problems fearing the subject to be taboo, it is often up to employers to identify where issues exist in the workplace. They can then implement measures to support staff.

This is by no means an insignificant problem. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 13.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2006/07, at a cost of some £3 billion to employers.

Cost is not the only incentive for employers to put measures in place to tackle stress and look after employees’ mental health. Under the terms of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers have a legal duty to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities. In addition, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires them to take measures to control that risk.

In 2004, the HSE published its stress management standards for employers to follow when tackling the issue. However, these have apparently failed to achieve their desired effect, according to a report published by the HSE in August, Psychosocial working conditions in Britain in 2008.

This stated: “The predicted improvement in working conditions as a result of HSE’s rollout of the Management Standards for work-related stress has not materialised as yet, and the number of workers reporting that their job is highly stressful is no longer steadily decreasing. The lack of impact to date of the Management Standards could reflect the long latency between organisations first implementing the process and benefits being realised.”

But while the results of any initiatives to combat stress and mental ill health may not be immediately apparent, there is still a compelling business case for implementing an effective strategy for supporting employees, says Ben Wilmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “People who are suffering from even low levels of stress and who are not being managed properly will be less productive. Eventually, they may go off sick and the employer then has the added cost that entails, and the added responsibility of reintegrating them back into work.

“Employers should be trying to reduce any work-related stress factors, and to be more aware of the early symptoms of stress and mental illnesses which include changes in behaviour, performance or attendance.”

Many employers underestimate the extent to which stress and mental ill health can affect their organisations, according to a report entitled Mental health: the last workplace taboo, published by the charity Shaw Trust in 2006.

This found that while around three-in-10 employees experience stress, depression or some other form of mental ill health in any given year, only 17% of employers recognise that this is likely to apply to their workforce. Almost half of the employers surveyed (45%) thought that none of their employees were suffering any form of mental ill health. Tim Cooper, managing director at Shaw Trust, says: “In the current climate, when the stresses and strains on staff and management are increasing, employers need to be even more aware of the potential for these types of problems.”

Monitoring how staff are feeling can help employers identify where potential problems lie. This can be as simple as conducting regular surveys, asking staff how they feel about issues such as their work-life balance, their relationship with their line manager, and work colleagues, and tracking how responses change over time, for example.

Alternatively, employers could aim to nip problems in the bud by taking a preventative approach to tackling stress and mental ill health. James Slater, project and product director at Ceridian, says: “We are seeing a lot of organisations implementing policies with a preventative approach. [This may include] offering health and lifestyle benefits as a way of acknowledging that staff are under increasing pressure and company expectations are higher than ever.”

Such benefits might include gym membership, yoga classes and health risk assessments. Complementary therapies such as aromatherapy and massage, which can be carried out at the individual’s desk, can also be used. “These benefits tend to focus on the employee’s ability to cope with pressure and stressful situations,” adds Slater.

The most effective way of supporting staff with stress and mental health problems is with a comprehensive strategy, says the CIPD’s Wilmott. “Some employers carry out risk assessments while others rely on occupational health practitioners, usually on a fragmented and ad-hoc basis. What is needed is a holistic approach, with line managers [being] trained to offer help without creating or exacerbating problems, access to occupational health support and stress counselling, and the option of flexible working arrangements.”

Benefits such employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can help employers to co-ordinate resources and ensure staff receive appropriate interventions. Dirk Hansen, counselling services director UK at Employee Advisory Resource, says: “The idea of these [schemes] is to defuse problems that can escalate and affect an employee’s performance. They can help to identify whether a person is suffering from stress or a mental health problem, [which] can be difficult.”

For example, at one end of the spectrum they can simply provide an understanding port of call for an employee who isn’t managing their work and who may benefit from simply talking things through with somebody. But Hansen adds: “At the other end, you [may] have an employee showing signs of mental illness, where professional intervention is required. An EAP can be instrumental in co-ordinating this.”

Although it can be tricky to identify where in the organisation employees are suffering from stress and mental health issues, having a strategy in place to deal with problems should they arise can be advantageous for employers. As Peter Lauris, sales and marketing director at healthcare cash plan provider Medicash, explains: “Employers are recognising it is more economical to retain healthy staff than to have to retrain replacements, and are increasingly committing to fostering understanding and openness when it comes to stress.”

Responsibility on the line
Line managers should underpin any organisational strategy for supporting staff through stress and mental health problems, as they are often well positioned to identify potential issues among colleagues.

However, many may feel poorly equipped to do this and, as a result, avoid potentially awkward situations. Therefore, providing line management training and support is a key aspect of any strategy designed by employers to tackle employee stress and mental ill health. Vodafone is one organisation that has invested in this area to enable its line managers to provide help and support for its 11,000 UK employees.

David Dunwoody, UK employee relations manager at Vodafone, says: “More often than not it is a line manager who is alerted to the first signs of someone experiencing problems.

“Through training, these people now know how to intervene without getting personally involved, and with the wide range of support services on hand, they feel confident about approaching staff who may be suffering from stress or symptoms of mental illness in situations that managers have traditionally been nervous about tackling.

“We have an employee assistance programme with telephone and face-to-face counselling options as well as a crisis intervention service in the event of something sudden and tragic occurring. There is also access to an external occupational health adviser.”

Case Study: RAF Benevolent Fund

The Royal Air Force (RAF) Benevolent Fund introduced several initiatives to help deal with stress among its 140-strong workforce as part of a wide-ranging benefits overhaul two years ago.

This included the introduction of an employee assistance programme (EAP), which includes a stress counselling service alongside other perks.

Richard Wheatley, head of HR, explains: “Around 40% of our employees have served in the RAF, many having either experienced traumatic and stressful situations themselves or known colleagues who have, which gives us a different perspective on workplace stress and mental illness than most organisations.” The help provided by the organisation includes long-term and short-term respite care, and long-term care for the elderly.

When it experienced increased reports of stress, its counselling service helped to deal with this. This can be accessed via a helpline, followed by face-to-face counselling sessions if needed by employees.

Wheatley adds: “The HR door is always open to colleagues who know they can talk one-to-one about their problems. The counselling service is a back-up option that can be used independently or recommended by a manager. Having it in place has contributed to a reduction in workplace-induced stress.”

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