Employees rest during a break at the OnePlus manufacturing facility in Dongguan, China, on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Factory workers facing heavy or unrelenting workloads may be prone to mental health problems © Bloomberg

Daniel Pearson returned to work at EY, the professional services firm, after taking time off to deal with mental health problems and felt “absolutely terrified” of colleagues’ attitudes to his illness and the uncertainty of how to deal with questions about his absence. Yet there was one person who made a difference, helping ease his re-entry to the workplace: his “buddy”.

This was a colleague who had experienced something similar. “He came to meet me with a big smile,” recalls Pearson. “It was so massively powerful not to feel alone when going through this.” The person was there as part of an EY scheme enabling informal conversations and advice. Subsequently, Pearson has acted, too, as a friend to others who have struggled with mental health. “I’m happy,” he says. “The world has moved on a lot. Attitudes are changing.”

In recent years, employers have taken a greater role in raising awareness. As was the case with physical health — with discounts on gym membership, healthy food in canteens and medical checks — employers have realised that addressing mental health matters can boost productivity.

Media group owner Arianna Huffington, for example, describes the business rationale in her book, Thrive: “Stress reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.” Will Davies, a lecturer in politics at the University of London and author of The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, observes that happiness economics, which has developed since the late 20th century, has helped to quantify the proven benefits of wellbeing to employers.

Poppy Jaman, programme director for City Mental Health Alliance, a network of City of London-based organisations that are raising awareness of mental health, says: “The business case for addressing mental health and wellbeing has been established and is now featuring on many boardroom agendas.” Members of the network — which include banks and law firms — are innovating, exploring and implementing changes to create mentally healthy workplaces. This is a big shift, she says. Companies are increasingly seeking to support employees who are experiencing difficulties with mental health and want to curb stress and anxiety.

Nick Baber, a director in KPMG’s consulting team and a member of the professional services firm’s Be Mindful network, which provides support on mental health, believes that having senior role models who can show that you can still be successful while managing a mental health condition, has been important. “Over the last few years we have seen that individuals are feeling more confident about speaking out on their mental health in the workplace, which in turn encourages others to be open and seek help proactively rather than waiting until their health deteriorates before they request support.”

Kate Richardson-Moore, global head of talent and engagement at Linklaters, says the law firm has made great efforts to “raise the profile of mental health . . . we want to lift the lid and allow people to open the conversation. People don’t like admitting they need help so we try to make it normal to have these conversations.” Key to that has been to have senior staff attending mental health events to share their own problems so that employees know they are not alone and that it will not affect their careers. “We keep up the consistent messaging so people know it’s as important as going to the gym.”

Another law firm, Hogan Lovells, has an in-house counsellor, with whom individuals can book appointments themselves without having to go through human resources or their line manager.

This year, Beth Taylor took up a new role as mental health leader at PwC, the professional services firm, after the board decided to dedicate a senior employee to it. “We were aware that mental health was becoming a problem. No one is immune from [it]. We do a lot of good things but they are ad hoc.” Much of the work has been on educating people at all levels. One employee spoke on a video made for the staff about panic attacks and how it meant that on occasions he was forced to leave meetings. “People are ignorant,” says Taylor. “If you haven’t experienced a mental health issue, you wouldn’t know how to deal with it.”

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) following news that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union on June 24, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Wall Street traders have to deal with the stress of fast-moving events on a daily basis © Getty

The extent of the problem is alarming. In the UK, the most recent report from the chief medical officer for England, published in 2014, estimates that the number of sick days lost to “stress, depression and anxiety” increased by 24 per cent between 2009 and 2013. The latest Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey found that 73 per cent of employees surveyed have at least one form of work-related stress; 41 per cent have two or more; 20 per cent have three or more. Meanwhile, a report from Rotman School of Management in Toronto, published last year, shows that 41 per cent of employees from a range of industries reported high levels of anxiety. It is not just absenteeism that employers worry about but also “presenteeism”, the loss of productivity, when employees come to work despite ill health. In Australia, a report by Medibank, the health insurer, estimated that presenteeism, including all medical and mental health problems, took as much as 2.7 per cent off the country’s gross domestic product in 2010.

Some attribute such statistics to individuals being more likely to disclose details of their mental health and companies being increasingly inclined to measure them. However, others say the figures really point to rising rates of mental health problems because of precarious jobs and heavy workloads, as well as technology that demands workers are always on and available, making it impossible to switch off from work.

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace found that half of employees surveyed said stress was due to unrealistic time pressure and demands; some 31 per cent said not being consulted about change in the workplace increased stress, while 27 per cent said it was a lack of control over the work that they do. In addition, 5 per cent of employees said they were bullied on a frequent basis and 15 per cent that they had been bullied at some point in the previous 12 months.

Jamie True, chief executive of LifeWorks, a provider of services to encourage employee engagement, believes the key to alleviating employees’ stress lies in acknowledging their work. “Typically, employees who feel valued and enriched by their employers will be more productive and suffer less stress.”

For all the awareness-raising and good policies, it is the corporate culture or an unsympathetic line manager that might cause employees the greatest problems, either in increasing their stress or stopping them from seeking help, lest they be stigmatised. Will Meyerhofer, a lawyer-turned-therapist and author of Way Worse Than Being a Dentist, is sceptical about the value of seminars. “They probably work a little, sort of like a Band-Aid works a little to stem the blood spurting at high pressure from a severed artery. It’s not really addressing the problem.” There is a pretty good argument that a gesture in the direction of doing something is worse than doing nothing “since it makes it look like you’re doing something when serious issues are essentially going unaddressed”.

It is important employers do not use initiatives to tick boxes or make employees feel they are just a productivity unit. Laura Putnam, chief executive of Motion Infusion, a San Francisco-based consultancy that promotes wellbeing at work, says initiatives to improve mental wellbeing can “suffer from a transactional quality” and make policies seem like it is something “being done ‘to’ them rather than ‘for’ them”.

Employers must be prepared to respond to changes in the economic and political landscape. Linklaters, for example, has hired a psychologist to run a seminar on uncertainty and how to cope in the wake of Brexit.

Overall, it would be wrong to overstate employers’ initiatives. The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found last year that about 40 per cent of organisations in the UK were making no effort to address stress in the workplace. Moreover, academic Will Davies is concerned that technology and measuring will become ever more intrusive. We are, he notes, living in a time of supposed “scientific rational exuberance when you can get to workplace problems through objective data. The tech is clumsy at the moment but it will become more normal.” While companies seeking to stem sickness are experimenting with wearable technology to track workers’ steps and physical health, how will we react to our moods being analysed?

Amy McKeown, a senior manager in health, mental health and wellbeing at EY, set up the firm’s mental health buddy scheme. She is optimistic, observing that those companies that get their policies and culture right can encourage employees to seek help early.

“People are,” she says, “making more use of these programmes.” 

Insecurity breeds anxiety

Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at London’s Cass Business School, says job uncertainty is a prime cause of anxiety at work.

This is the case for those who feel they have no control over their job and those who are on precarious contracts.

“A lot of control over work is lost during restructuring and change, as well as short contracts,” he notes.

This will not surprise anyone who has read Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which chronicled workers experiencing volatile wages and job insecurities.

A study published in June by Social Science & Medicine looked at 2.7m employees in Italy between 2007 and 2011. It found that those on temporary job contracts were more likely to be prescribed psychotropic medication (mind-altering drugs).

“More days of work under temporary contract as well as frequent changes in temporary contract significantly increase the probability of developing mental health problems that need to be medically treated,” the report stated.

It suggested that policies aimed at increasing labour market flexibility through more temporary contracts should also take into account their cost in terms of employee wellbeing.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article