Yes, the beginning of the year has something particularly ‘blue’ to it. To a certain extent, it is the season to be sad. It’s always dark and cold outside, the holidays are over and day-to-day routines have kicked in. Feeling low is not uncommon. Nearly one in three people in the UK suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), with symptoms ranging from fatigue and trouble concentrating all the way through to anxiety and depression.
But while the effects of SAD will improve or subside once the season passes, other mental health problems will not. The conversation around January Blues and Blue Monday is important and raises awareness for a very real problem, but it’s only a small part of the picture: One in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week. A quarter of the UK’s population will experience a mental health problem each year. SAD, though a significant problem with very real impacts on people, is only a subset of a broad range of mental health problems. These exist all year long.
The many intersections of mental health have, to a certain extent, made it ‘easy’ for employers to take themselves out of the equation. Personal life, personality, lifestyle, even physical health — all play a role in one’s mental wellbeing. But work is a significant part of daily life. In fact, studies show that 60% of people have experienced mental health issues because of work.
Employers need to be more proactive. It’s not enough to have support in place for those suffering from mental health problems.
We have to become better at mental hygiene in the workplace.
Here’s a definition of mental hygiene from the British Medical Journal — this was published in 1922 when the National Council of Mental Hygiene was established.
“By mental hygiene was meant the maintenance of that state of health in which the human being could respond normally to the calls made upon him by daily life. It was as important to every man as the sanitation of his home.”
This was nearly a century ago. To think that, since then, we’ve eradicated polio and have developed treatments for tetanus, tuberculosis and shingles, held two world wars, walked the moon and seen the USSR come and go really puts things into perspective. Medically, our knowledge and understanding of mental health has improved. But in practice, things have certainly not advanced as much as space travel has. And this is where the workplace has some serious catching up to do.
What can employers do?
Mental health shouldn’t be seen as a ‘perk’. No one advertises health and safety as such. Prevention is as relevant to psychological distress as it is to physical pain. And that’s exactly what mental hygiene is. It’s all of the measures taken to promote and to preserve mental health. After all, “health” isn’t just lack of illness. “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Work, and particularly unsustainable working practices, can take a toll on people. The list below is by no means exhaustive — but hopefully it can serve as a good starting point to reflect on the steps businesses can take to improve the wellbeing of their teams.
1. Remove unnecessary pressures
Does your team have to be in the office at 9am, on the dot? Does your team have to be in the office five days a week? Research shows there’s a direct link between wellbeing and commute length/exposure to rush hour. Employers can do much more to minimise these types of stresses.
2. Show (genuine) concern for overtime
Studies have linked overtime to increased odds of experiencing major depressive episodes. It’s ok to have a busy week, and it’s ok to be so fascinated with a project that you don’t want to get away. But putting in hours of overtime every day shouldn’t become a habit. In some businesses, or even whole industries, overtime has become almost epidemic. So much so that a sense of competitive tiredness exists amongst colleagues. There’s no benefit to that.
3. Enable the conversation
15% of employees that disclosed a mental health issue faced disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal. Over half of employees don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health issues at work. And only one in 10 employees who experienced a mental health problem actually disclosed it to a line manager.
4. Train team leads
It’s their responsibility to look after their teams — but businesses need to equip them with the tools to do so. Less than a quarter of managers have received training in mental health. Most HR companies now offer mental health training.
5. Create great jobs — not just a good workplace
Challenge your employees and reward their great work — actively take part in making sure their job gives back to them as much as they give to the business.
6. Do more about work-life balance
Every person has a personal life — and fitting it around work can be unnecessarily difficult. Businesses shouldn’t wait for employees to come to them. Aligning work and personal life should be a part of onboarding.
7. Look after culture
Generally, work is made up of two things: a job, and a workplace. Team dynamics can seriously impact mental wellbeing, so its important to take a proactive approach to resolving clashes and negative behaviour; fostering a constructive and positive work environment.
8. Make use of new technology
Thousands of organisations are creating technology to improve wellbeing. At Rotageek, for example, we’re creating tech that fairly schedules staff. It’s particularly important because shift workers are at a significant risk of developing mental and physical health problems.
The January Blues might be over, but mental health problems are definitely not. We’ve definitely come a long way, but I’m certain there’s so much more around prevention that can be done — especially by companies. Getting this right means workers can benefit from an improved work-life balance, which ultimately delivers a better motivated, engaged and retained workforce. So really, if we need to look at it from an ROI point of view, this is a no-brainer.
Let’s keep the conversation going this year. And let’s not get too comfortable with a reactive approach to mental health.