Corporate wellbeing – the new approach to improved productivity

There has been significant ‘noise’ about ways to improve productivity in the workplace in recent months (and years), much of it focused on techniques designed to get more out of fewer resources (i.e. people), or using new and emerging technologies to automate basic tasks in order to save money by reducing employee headcount.

These approaches are, in many cases, all well and good.

However, through new research studies we are increasingly learning that those who maintain a sensible life-work balance combined with taking smarter, strategic actions in the workplace are more creative and productive than those working hard for long hours. Mental health issues in the workplace – whether directly job related or not – are gradually being identified and talked about more, and organisations are becoming more aware of the effect that has on productivity, and bottom-line profits.

Positively, more employers are now taking better steps to support their workforce.

In my work with employers large and small, across a range of sectors, I’ve come across many people who, whilst recognising the need to attend to their teams’ mental fitness (and often, their own) don’t always have the knowledge, skills and tools to take the right steps, nor do they have a consistently supportive working environment.

I’d like to share with you some of my insights into mental health in the workplace, and why taking care of your employees’ (and your own) mental health is not only the right thing to do as a responsible employer, but it is now proven to actually create longer term growth in productivity and profit. Everyone can win if it is treated as an investment and not as a cost or ‘employee wellbeing tick box’ exercise.

What do we mean when we talk about mental health?

When we refer to mental health, we are talking about a person’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being.

Good mental health is a state of wellbeing where we can recognise our potential and cope with natural stresses in everyday life whilst working productively and happily.

Mental health issues (which can take a very wide range of forms) are becoming more widely recognised and diagnosed, with 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem every year.

There are nearly 300 recognised mental health disorders, and these can be broadly grouped into:

  • Mood Disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Personality Disorder
  • Psychotic Disorder (i.e. schizophrenia)
  • Eating Disorder
  • Trauma-related Disorder
  • Substance Abuse Disorder

Just how common and costly are mental health issues in the workplace?

There are some pretty big numbers involved here, from the UK in 2017 that put the problem into context:

  • 14.7% of people are experiencing mental health problems in the workplace
  • 12.7% of all sick absence days are attributed to mental health conditions
  • Women working full-time are nearly twice as likely to have a mental health problem as men working full-time, (women 19.8%/ men 10.9%)
  • 70 million working days are lost due to mental health problems
  • Work-related mental ill-health costs businesses up to £26 billion each year, of which:
  • £2.4 is billion wasted on staff turnover due to mental wellbeing issues
  • £15.1 billion lost by unproductive staff at work who are unable to cope due to mental health issues

However, 95% of employees calling in sick due to stress will give a different reason for their absence, possibly because of a fear that their employer won’t recognise the significance of stress (which suggests that some of the figures above may actually be underreporting the impact of poor mental health in the workplace).

Business leaders are increasingly speaking about mental issues affecting them, and managers are increasingly recognising that they have a responsibility not just for their team members’ productivity, but also for their wellbeing. Yet in the UK, whilst 84% of managers believe this to be the case, disappointingly only 24% report having received appropriate training to help them!

What are the main impacts of mental health issues on people’s lives?

In recent years, the link between mental health and physical health has become more widely recognised by the medical profession, particularly with regard to cardiovascular disease. A recent study of over 3.2 million people dealing with severe mental illness reported a 53% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Those dealing with mental health issues also report decreased quality of life, educational difficulties, social problems and vulnerability; as well as lowered productivity, and 80% identified that their condition had a detrimental effect on their family.

What are the particular causes of workplace-related mental health issues?

The overall causes of mental health problems can be broadly divided into three categories:

Biological

More physical reasons like genetics, defects, or substance-related issues.

Psychological

  • Trauma
  • Early loss (a close relation)
  • Neglect
  • Inability to relate to others

Environment

  • Dysfunctional home life, divorce, poverty
  • Excessive hours, high workloads and harsh deadlines
  • High pressure work environment, insufficient resources
  • Poor leadership, culture and inadequate talent investment

For employers, the ‘environment’ issues are the main areas that you can influence, ensuring that workplace problems don’t cause (or exacerbate) an individual to develop workplace stress. According to WHO (World Health Organization), there are an estimated 264 million people worldwide suffering from depression, with many also dealing with anxiety. A negative working environment can lead to physical health problems, absenteeism and lost productivity.

The most common factors in workplace stress include:

  • Lack of support
  • Role uncertainty
  • Workplace bullying, harassment or discrimination
  • Workplace changes
  • Boring job content
  • Excessive workloads/unrealistic expectations and underused skills
  • Lack of proper resources/equipment
  • Lack of control over areas of work
  • Poor working relationships
  • Conflict
  • Toxic company culture
  • Bad management/leadership
  • Poor physical working environments
  • Unequal pay
  • Lack of promotional opportunities
  • Micromanagement
  • Inadequate health and safety policies

It’s not usually as simple as looking at one factor, though. For example, whilst a person may have all the skills and competencies needed to carry out their job role, lack of resources, unsupportive management or a negative environment can still impact on their mental health.

What are the benefits to business of addressing mental health issues in the workplace?

Businesses that promote mental health and support people in their workforce with mental health issues are more likely to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, and benefit from reducing the costs associated with a high turnover of staff leading to more recruitment and training needs. Don’t forget the ‘domino effect’ of how colleagues are affected when additionally covering the workload of a long term sick absentee.

Too many businesses are naive and unwilling to invest in initiatives to support mental health in the workplace, seeing it as a cost which comes off their bottom line. More and more organisations are becoming aware that they need to see mental health support as a long-term investment which is now proven to impact positively on productivity and profitability, so everyone can win.

Mental health programmes can generate a return on investment of up to 800% (every £1 spent can yield an ROI of up to £9 for employers.)

Less easy to quantify, but no less important, is the impact that being a supportive employer can have on reputation. (Consider, conversely, the negative reputational impact that occurs when employees ‘call out’ companies for poor working practices.)

Creating a healthy work environment

WHO describes a healthy work environment as: “one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees.”

They suggest a three-pronged approach to developing a work environment which supports mental health:

  1. Protect mental health by reducing work–related risk factors.
  2. Promote mental health by developing the positive aspects of work and the strengths of employees.
  3. Address mental health problems regardless of cause.

This last point, to me, is one of the most important things that employers need to consider. As we’ve already seen, mental health issues in the workplace can arise from a number of work-related causes, but it is equally possible that the root cause lies outside of work (such as a bereavement and hidden or undiagnosed mental health issues from childhood). The key here is that employers have a responsibility for providing a supportive work environment to enable their employees to address mental health issues – even if the cause isn’t directly work related.

How can we identify people who might be suffering from mental health issues?

The signs aren’t always easy to spot, especially when your only relationship with someone is as a manager or colleague, but some general signs that all is not well include observing changes in them such as:

  • someone appears tired, slow and disorganised
  • they become moody, unhappy and anti-social
  • they are consistently irritable and hard to please
  • their time-keeping is poor, with increased time off
  • they suffer regularly with physical symptoms (e.g. headaches)
  • they make mistakes and irrational decisions

Additional signs, which may not be immediately obvious in the workplace, include:

  • eating too much (or unhealthily) from stress
  • poor diet and lifestyle habits
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • 29% start or drink more
  • 16% start or smoke more
  • ageing more quickly, and being generally unfit

In my Mental Fitness Workshops, I work with business leaders to drive strong workforce mental fitness alongside optimising productivity and profit growth so that all stakeholders win. This includes building 12 week plans to create a more supportive work environment, build resource optimisation whilst identifying and support people suffering from, or at risk of, mental health issues.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be sharing more insights with you about the steps we’ve taken together to improve mental health in the workplace, and the impact that’s had on both work culture and productivity.