Stress and anxiety ‘destroys the Scottish workplace’

Susan Falconer
Susan Falconer
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Promoted by Business in the Community

Increasing support to staff is easy and cost effective says Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community.

According to Health and Safety Executive statistics, work-related stress accounts for 37 per cent of all ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.

Employers can take simple steps to support work-place health

Employers can take simple steps to support work-place health

There were 11.7 million working days lost in 2015-16 as a result of mental health issues, with employees requiring an average of 23.9 days off work to recover – with inevitable costs to businesses and the economy.

Key stress factors are high workloads, soaring demands and insufficient support from managers. Taken in isolation they may be manageable, but as work pressures escalate, financial worries, concerns over job security and personal problems at home can combine to tip some people over the edge.

‘Stress at work had me at breaking point’

The pebble that decorated her desk was hard, and as Susan Falconer held it tight, she wondered whether to use it to smash the office window or throw it at her PC screen.

Stress at work had grown from a constant grind to the point where an all-too-familiar dark depression had resurfaced, and her personal breaking point had arrived.

“I thought: ‘I’ve got to get out’,” she says. “I ended up off work for five months.”

She is far from alone. Every year, hundreds of thousands of UK employees are affected by work-related stress, anxiety and depression, often requiring time off to recover.

Yet while the outdated stigma and mystery surrounding mental health does appear to be lifting, new research from the charitable organisation Business in the Community, carried out in partnership with global HR consultants Mercer, suggests there is still a considerable gap between the support for people experiencing mental health problems at work, and those with other – more visible – physical health issues.

The recently published findings, Mental Health at Work Report 2018, showed that while 86 per cent of people managers see employee wellbeing as their responsibility, 62 per cent of line managers had not had any training on mental health.

The organisation is now calling for businesses to rethink their approach and to introduce new measures that ensure people with mental health difficulties receive the same care and support as those with more visible conditions, and help end any lingering stigma or misconceptions.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, says:

“Although there has been slow incremental improvement of overall mental health at work over the past three years, collective and urgent action by employers is needed to build momentum quickly, taking a ‘whole person’ approach to physical, mental, financial and social health and wellbeing.”

Ending a twenty year battle with work-based stress

In Susan Falconer’s case, work-related stress caused the symptoms of a 20-year battle with depression to resurface, resulting in five months away from work.

“Someone else was off at the same time with a physical condition,” adds Falconer, 51, of Galashiels. “They received flowers; I got e-mails asking when I was coming back to work.”

According to the charity SAMH – the Scottish Association for Mental Health –

at least one in six employees working in Scotland experience common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Meanwhile, research among Scottish workers carried out by an offshoot of the charity’s programme See Me – set up in 2002 to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination – revealed that 48 per cent of people engaged by the survey did not feel they could tell their employers about a mental health problem for fear of losing their job.

The findings also revealed a gap between workers’ health needs and their confidence in how employers can support them – 31 per cent of respondents confirmed that they had experienced a mental health problem, yet just 22 per cent felt people in their workplace had a good understanding of the importance of employee mental health.

Worryingly, only 30 per cent believed that their manager cared about their emotional wellbeing, and 46 per cent did not feel someone in their workplace with a mental health problem would be supported by management.

At least at the other end of the scale, the survey found a willingness among Scottish employees to help their colleagues, with some 83 per cent saying that they would want a better understanding of a colleague’s mental health problem so the respondent could behave appropriately.

‘Good employers try to understand what is behind work-place stress’

Billy Watson, chief executive of SAMH, says the past two years have seen a clear upturn among businesses seeing mental health as a work issue.

He adds: “People say the workplace is the place that they fear and anticipate stigmatised responses, not just from their employer but from colleagues.

“Good employers are sensitively trying to understand what might be behind workplace stress so people can be properly supported and the return to work can be quicker.”

Watson highlights the fact that while mental health problems can affect anyone at any level in any business, some, such as the financial sector, can see a particular spike.

“Financial services has a robust culture where people do find it quite difficult to talk,” he says. “But in places like RBS and HSBC, we have been impressed by the lengths they are going to understand and deal with the issues.

“There is a new honesty among business leaders about workplace mental health in those tough sectors.”

Watson also points out that while there are clear economic benefits for employers to have a healthy and content workforce, there is also a legal obligation to support people with mental health problems.

“We know absences related to mental health problems cost business £690 million last year, while a bigger issue is that of presenteeism, people who have mental health problems but still coming to work.

“It’s worth remembering that the Equalities Act means employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for people who are protected under the Act, which embraces mental health.”

What can a business do to properly address mental health issues?

Kate Hinder, Head of Communications for BITC Scotland, says discussing the topic and remembering mental health is the samegiving mental health parity with as physical health is a starting point.

Hinder was 21 and studying politics and modern history at university when unfortunately she became seriously unwell. As the then student’s world unravelled around her, she sought desperately needed support, but was told to wander around the university herself to seek out lecturers and explain why she wasn’t attending classes.

Later, having entered the world of work, Hinder felt that stress, anxiety and depression were so stigmatised that she had to keep her head down and not discuss her own issues with them, let alone seek medical treatment.

“I was embarrassed and ashamed,” she says. “Yet lots of people take medication to manage their [general] health and well-being.

“I use the diabetes analogy – it’s ludicrous to think that someone should be criticised or stigmatised because they take insulin for their diabetes, so why should it be any different for a mental health problem?”

According to her colleague, Business in the Community Scotland director Alan Thornburrow, shifting attitudes and greater awareness of mental health provide a golden opportunity for honest discussions about the topic at work.

He says: “We’re talking more, there’s better awareness and lots of great resources for employers, but there are some key issues around mental health that we all need to address.

“For example, if someone has a broken arm, people don’t say ‘oh, you just need to tough it out’. Yet it’s remarkable how often that’s the case for people and mental health.”

Support employees in three simple steps

Thornburrow is also candid about his own mental health challenges, which – ironically – came to a head on a day he was hosting a conference on mental health at work alongside former Downing Street ‘spin doctor’ Alistair Campbell, who has also been frank about his own health struggles.

“I had been feeling unusually low for a while and had become much more anxious that usual. I remember the day vividly and this feeling of just unravelling. I went to see my GP who diagnosed anxiety and depression and prescribed tablets. I nearly fell over when he said that, but it made sense and explained what was wrong,” he recalls.

He believes businesses can start to support employees by taking three simple steps – talking, training and action.

“People are not necessarily that confident when it comes to talking about their health experiences, and managers are not always that comfortable about having a conservation in a very sensitive way. Men in senior roles are among the least likely to speak up. But by talking about it, we normalise it.

“There’s lots of training material out there for businesses but it’s not always taken up. But training can help people have conversations that can really help others.

“We want to see employers take action. Some businesses have responded really positively and made adjustments to support people. Something like enabling them work from home for one day a week can make a huge different to someone’s life.”

Business in the Community Scotland, PwC, Barclays, SAMH and the Samaritans joined forces to launch a pioneering workplace mental health campaign, This Is Me Scotland, in October. It aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and break the culture of workplace silence by enabling people to tell their own stories.

Claire Reid, head of assurance for PwC in Scotland, says: “We believe it is important for our people to be able to talk openly about mental health. That is why we backed This Is Me Scotland.

“Our people are our greatest asset and we are committed to a workplace where everyone is able to achieve their full potential. Part of that is supporting our colleagues and wider communities in addressing the challenge that surrounds mental health.”

Mairead Rowan, See Me Scotland workplace officer, insists that altering the culture of work can create an environment in which people feel confident about revealing their mental health struggles.

She says: “The workplace is one of the key areas where people face stigma and discrimination.

“We want to change the workplace culture so all staff feel confident enough to speak about how they are feeling and can ask for help if they need it, without the fear that they will be stigmatised and discriminated against.

“The need for this is clear. A survey we undertook as part of our See Me in Work programme found that 48 per cent of Scottish workers think that someone in their work with a mental health problem would be unlikely to disclose for fear of losing their job.

“There are a number of ways in which organisations can ensure that discrimination is tackled in their workplace. Ensuring there are equal and fair work practices and inclusive and supportive policies and procedures can protect workers if they are struggling with their mental health.

“Above that creating an environment where staff feel safe to ask for help and receive the support they need, from both management and colleagues, can make a huge difference.”

Meanwhile, Susan Falconer in Galashiels agrees that solutions can come in quite simple forms. She says: “If work colleagues just stopped for a moment and said: ‘Are you OK? Let’s have a cup of tea’. Or sent a quick e-mail to check that someone is alright and whether they need a minute, it can make a huge difference.

“Workplaces have first aiders, but why can’t there be a mental health first aider too? If you fall over with appendicitis, the first aider isn’t expected to take out your appendix, but they will help you until you get to hospital.

“A mental health first aider doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist. They can just be there to comfort and signpost you to getting help.”

The cost of poor mental health in the work-place

According to research published in March 2018 by the Health and Safety Executive:

· Work-related stress accounts for 37 per cent of all ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.

· The total number of working days lost in 2015-16 was 11.7 million, with an average of 23.9 days per case.

· The overall economic cost to the UK as a result is more than £5 billion.

· Work-related stress is the second most commonly reported cause of occupational ill health in the UK.

· The highest incidents are in the public services – education, health and social care, prisons, emergency services, and local and central government.

· The HSE has called for employers to take a proactive stance to managing work-related stress, and urged that more human resources and health and safety professionals are made available, and the sharing of understanding made more widespread.

To learn more about Business in the Community Scotland, visit