We often refer to ourselves as a nation of workaholics, and not without reason.
A 2014 study by the OECD found that the average number of ‘per worker’ hours worked annually in the UK is higher than it is in Germany, France, The Netherlands and several other countries in Europe.
The jobs market in the UK is among the most competitive in the world, and pressure to succeed in our professional roles is just one of the factors which contributes to our intense working culture. Furthermore, on a personal level, many Brits traditionally feel that what they do for a living at least partly defines their status in life, so the need to push one’s self physically and mentally can often be a compelling one.
But pressure to perform at work can and often will lead to stress, which can have an adverse effect, not just on physical health, but on mental health too.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW16) we decided to delve into this subject further, and find out more about the potential health risks of workplace stress, what employers are doing to tackle the issue and, perhaps most importantly, what we can do as individuals to reduce its effect on our general well-being.
To do this, we got in touch with Emma Mamo, who is Head of Workplace Wellbeing at UK mental health charity Mind.
How common is work-related stress?
One aspect of work-related stress which is generally underestimated is the extent of the problem.
Mind and research experts YouGov conducted a study which investigated the issue in the UK. It found that 56 percent of respondents categorised their occupations as either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ stressful.
Further to this, Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer in the UK, released a report in 2014 which revealed that: poor mental health had resulted in 70 million working days being ‘lost’ in the preceding year; and that this represented a cost to the economy of between £70bn and £100bn.
So while improving workplace conditions for employers is important from a health perspective, Emma points out that: ‘promoting good workplace wellbeing makes business sense, too.’ As well as lessening the hit taken by their balance sheet, employers will derive other benefits, such as better ‘staff engagement, morale, loyalty and productivity,’ Emma explains.
Who does it affect?
Of course not all jobs are made equal. We often see some occupations as being more naturally stress-inducing than others; this might be down to increased responsibility, longer or more anti social working hours, or the job entailing working in a more competitive or unforgiving environment.
The effect of different occupations on sleep patterns and physical health is a subject we’ve covered before: stressful periods at work can of course have an impact on blood pressure, or even encourage unhealthy eating habits which has several knock-on health effects of its own.
We were curious to hear Emma’s perspective on which, if any, particular occupations presented a higher risk of stress than others. However, as Emma explains, workplace stress isn’t something is exclusive to certain lines of work:
‘Stress can affect anyone, regardless of profession. The causes of stress are many and vary from person to person.’
But she goes on to explain that there are occupational characteristics which can be more conducive to the problem:
‘Commonly cited causes of stress include long working hours, excessive workload, poor relationships with managers and other members of staff and threat of redundancy. So it stands to reason that people who work within professions where these factors are commonplace are at greater risk of experiencing the symptoms of unmanageable stress, or developing a mental health problem such as anxiety disorder or depression.’
The most prominently-assumed suspects, such as those professions working in the emergency services, or working graveyard hours, are not the only jobs which can induce an unhealthy level of stress, as Emma explains:
‘Mind works with employers of all sectors to advise them on how to tackle the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health at work, but increasingly we are seeing more engagement from City firms for whom the long-hours, high pressure culture is not conducive to good mental health.’
The relationship between stress and health
A degree of pressure, Emma notes, can be useful in spurring us on at work to complete a task and maximise productivity. However, it’s when this pressure is present in a perpetual state that it can ‘negatively impact’ our wellbeing.
This can lead to what Emma terms ‘unmanageable stress’:
‘The symptoms of unmanageable stress can be similar to the symptoms of someone experiencing depression and anxiety, the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem.’
This may result in symptoms such as:
- feeling isolated
- feeling hopeless
- loss of self-esteem
- or declining interest in activities which we’d normally find enjoyable.
‘Symptoms of depression and indeed stress can be physical as well as emotional,’ Emma goes on to explain, ‘such as having trouble sleeping, or sleeping a lot, eating more or less than usual, experiencing aches and pains.’
Emma also notes that anxiety can manifest physically too, and may present symptoms ‘such as sweating, faster breathing, feeling nauseous and dizzy.’
‘In terms of work performance, stress can affect a whole range of things, such as our ability to make decisions, our memory and our punctuality, particularly if we’re not sleeping well.’
What should employers be doing?
Of course it's easy for us to extol the importance of acting on the signs early from an employee’s perspective, and addressing any issues related to workplace stress with their line manager or employer.
The truth is, however, that employees under pressure to perform will often feel less inclined to raise these issues; which means that employers have to at least meet them halfway, by creating an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about it.
‘We want employers to take responsibility in terms of creating a mentally healthy culture, which includes promoting wellbeing for all staff, tackling the work-related causes of stress and mental health problems and supporting staff experiencing mental health problems.’
Emma goes on to explain that it’s important too, for those who aren’t necessarily affected themselves, to feel as though that measures have been put in place to enable them to raise the issue should it affect them further down the line:
‘Employers that put in place wellbeing initiatives find that every member of staff benefits, whether they have a mental health problem or not, as well as sending a message to employees that they’re a responsible employer who values their contribution and wellbeing.’
What do these measures involve?
‘There are a number of small, inexpensive, practical ways employers can improve working conditions,’ Emma notes.
- flexible working hours
- regular staff meetings
- Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs)
- and Wellness Action Plans (WAPs).
‘WAPs are jointly drawn up by managers and staff,’ Emma explains, ‘and identify what helps people stay well at work and what might trigger poor mental health, as well as agreed solutions.’
Emma notes that these are ‘person-centred plans can facilitate constructive, supportive conversations about mental health.’
As well as providing resources and training programmes for employers, Mind is also developing what it calls the Workplace Wellbeing Index.
This will furnish employers with a ‘benchmark of best policy and practice’ for staff wellbeing, and provide them with the means to communicate (and improve) what they’re doing to raise awareness.
Making work accessible
It goes without saying that some employers are more accommodating than others when it comes to health.
However, research shows that a quarter of people in the UK will personally experience a mental health issue each year; so businesses need to have a system in place to make work accessible, particularly to those who have disclosed a mental health problem to them.
‘Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for someone who has disclosed a mental health problem or other disability.’ Emma says. She goes on to explain that these don’t have to be drastic or expensive changes, and may include simple adjustments such as:
- more regular one-to-one meetings with managers
or a change of:
- working hours
- or breaks.
Emma adds that liaising frequently on the subject helps managers and employees ‘create the space to discuss any issues they are facing and develop methods to tackle these problems.’
‘Reasonable adjustments aren’t always as easy to define for mental health problems as they are for physical ones.’ Emma tells us.
So it’s vital then, for employers and staff to work together on introducing better accessibility measures, and find practical solutions.
‘For example, if someone is experiencing panic attacks triggered by their daily commute,’ Emma explains, ‘that member of staff or indeed the employer, might suggest adjusting working hours.’
These adjusted hours would then enable the employee to sidestep commuting during the busiest time; when roads, buses, tube and train carriages are more likely to be jammed creating a confined, and potentially anxiety-inducing environment.
‘Even adjusting working hours by an hour or two either way could make all the difference if it means someone doesn’t have to travel on public transport at peak time.’ Emma suggests.
Are conditions improving?
With campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness Week now an integral fixture on the health calendar, we asked Emma whether she thought that, overall, working conditions were improving in relation to stress, but also to wider mental health issues.
‘It’s hard to say, but we know that the awareness surrounding mental health is rising, including in the workplace.’
This awareness has led to a steep increase in recent years in the number of businesses seeking Mind’s advice, Emma goes on to explain:
‘It’s encouraging to see so many organisations take the issue of mental health at work seriously.’
She also tells us that 450 different organisations have signed up to the Time to Change scheme, which illustrates how mental health is becoming an increasing part of discourse among business.
‘But we’re not out of the woods yet,’ Emma says, ‘we still hear from people who feel they’ve been discriminated against, or even pushed out of their jobs, upon disclosing a mental health problem.’
In a joint survey conducted by Mind and pollsters YouGov, of those who had needed time off work for stress, just 5 out of 100 gave this as their actual explanation. The remaining 95 percent cited other reasons as the cause.
‘So there’s a lot of work to be done with employers in creating an open and honest culture where staff feel able to talk about these issues.’ Emma notes.
What staff under stress can do
There are measures staff can take to reduce feelings of anxiety when their workload is getting on top of them, or are experiencing stress as a result of other issues at work.
Emma tells us that for many relaxation is key, but each individual is different. For some, a combination of techniques may be required.
‘Many people find exercise very effective, ideally 30 minutes a day. Physical activity is important for reducing stress levels and preventing some of its damaging effects on the body.’
Emma explains that doing so aids with the depletion of excess hormones generated by the body during times of stress, in addition to facilitating better cardiovascular function (and thereby reducing the physical effects of stress such as raised blood pressure) and encouraging the production of endorphins, which are natural stress relievers.
At work, Emma suggests the following as useful stress relief tricks:
- Take an actual lunch break. That means not sitting with lunch at your desk, looking at your screen. Get away from your desk, go outside, or go for a short walk.
- Try to stop yourself from working long hours. ‘It might help get urgent work done in the short term,’ Emma notes, ‘but over long periods of time can leave you feeling frazzled.’
- Realise that you’re only human and mistakes happen. ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get everything right all the time.’
- Take your allocated holidays, even if you don’t intend to go on vacation. Time spent at home still provides an opportunity for you to recharge mentally and physically.
- Learn how to say no. If you can’t take on the extra commitments, don’t let yourself be pressured into increasing your workload.
- Complete one task, then move onto the next. ‘If you try to do too many at once, you're more likely to end up muddled and accomplishing less.’
- Take a moment when your day is over to reflect on the tasks you’ve completed, instead of focussing on what you haven’t done or still have to do.
- Don’t take work home with you. That means not checking emails or replying to texts about work, until you’re officially on the clock again.
Whether you’re looking for help or advice with stress, work-related or otherwise, or if you’re an employer looking for free resources and training solutions, you can find more information on the Mind website.
They also operate a support line on 0300 123 3393, which is available from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.