Donald MacKinnon, director of legal services at Law At Work
Research by private healthcare provider, Bupa, released earlier this week, indicated that 20% of small business owners never talk to their staff about health issues, and around 25% of them were uncertain of their ability to spot signs of stress or depression among their workforce.
These are alarming statistics, not least because of the impact of poor mental health on businesses, the economy, the sufferers and their families. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimates the costs of work-related stress to be around £4 billion each year.
Official figures indicate that more than 100 million working days are lost each year in the UK because of mental illness, ranging from minor stress-related absences of a few days, through to major depressive disorders which can result in absences of a year or more.
Despite strenuous efforts by the NHS and mental health charities over the last 20 years, around 90% of people who have suffered from mental illness say they have experienced discrimination.
Indeed, according to the National Mental Health Development Unit, people with mental health problems continue to experience stigmatisation. Fewer than one in four people with a disabling mental health condition are in paid employment, compared with 47% of all disabled people. Employment rates for those with more serious mental health conditions are even lower and have fallen steadily since 1970.
Only four in 10 employers say they would employ someone with a poor mental health history, compared with six out of 10 who would consider employing someone with a physical disability.
Employers are not alone, employers are also apprehensive about the situation, around 60% of employees say they would feel uncomfortable talking to their line manager about a mental health problem. The main reason is fear of losing their job, followed by concern about their colleagues finding out.
Nearly one in five employees say they would be concerned their line manager would think they were ‘mad’, and they would be overlooked for promotion. And 92% of the public believe that disclosing a history of mental health problems would damage a person’s career.
Research suggests that more than half of the public would not offer someone a job, even if they were the best candidate, if they disclosed they had a history of depression – 17% because they thought the person would be unreliable, 10% because they thought they would be blamed if the person then took time off sick, and 15% because they thought they wouldn’t work as well as other staff or other staff would not want to work with them.
It is important that employers understand that stress and mental illness are not the same thing. Stress, if it is not identified and dealt with, can lead to serious mental illness. We all experience pressure regularly – for some, it can help us to perform at our best. It is when we experience too much pressure and feel unable to cope, that stress can result.
The good news is that employers can create a more productive, healthy workforce, and save money, by addressing the issue. Many organisations have reported improvements in productivity, staff retention and a reduction in sickness absence after tackling work-related stress.
Stress can stem from various factors. Staff can feel under pressure at work because of their workload, deadlines, the environment they work in or their colleagues. Suffering from stress can lead to psychological, emotional, physical and behavioural problems.
As everyone reacts to stress in different ways, their symptoms may vary. Common psychological symptoms range from a feeling of being unable to cope, to a loss of confidence. Emotional symptoms might include; negative or depressed moods, increased emotional reactions or feelings of being overwhelmed.
Stress also shows itself in physical symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation, headaches and weight changes. Employees suffering from work-related stress may rush to get things finished, take work home or work longer hours.
There are a number of resources available to help employers to manage stress and businesses would be wise to tackle the subject. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published a Management Standards approach to help employers manage work-related stress. It requires management and staff to work together to a number of standards which apply to a number of areas of work that can lead to stress if not properly managed.
For many businesses, employees are likely to be key asset to an organisation, and as such it is important that they are well looked after. When undertaking a risk assessment for stress, organisations should not only consider how change within the business might affect the employee but also the level of say the individual has in the way they do their work.
To discover who might be harmed and how it is best to use a number of sources of information and look for relationships within the data to get the most accurate view of the current state of the organisation. Annual staff surveys can be used to gather the views of employees.
This analysis, coupled with the organisations Management Standards, will decide what action should be taken next. When compiling the action plan, attention should be paid to how each action will be evaluated, to ensure it has been successful. When complete, the action plan should be communicated to employees.
The outcomes of the action will inform the business as to underlying issues within the organisation. Organisations are urged to consider what could be done in the future to prevent the problems identified recurring, in order to deal with them in a proactive, rather than reactive way.
Finally, as with all risk assessments, it is important to record what actions were taken. As part of the monitoring process, it is almost certain that the procedure will have to be repeated at some point.
Donald MacKinnon is the director of legal services at Law At Work.