What is it they say about hard work being its own reward? That may well be so, but it can also take a heavy toll on workers’ wellbeing. After all, work-related stress is the biggest single cause of lost working days, according to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).
Small wonder, given that most of us in Britain spend more time working than asleep in an average working week. That’s 7.5 hours a day at our desks [ONS] versus 6.3 hours in bed [Chemist4U] and just 34 minutes spent with our families and loved ones [Highland Spring].
Studies suggest job satisfaction, mental health and productivity are inextricably linked. Workers in their 40s are more likely to have anxiety or depression if they’ve had poor job satisfaction in their careers [Ohio State University]. Work-related stress resulted in 12.5 million sick days in 2016/7 [HSE], a rise of 7% on the previous year.
The link between mental and physical health
But few consider how mental and physical health are linked also. Thirty per cent of people with long-term physical health issues also have mental health problems, most commonly anxiety and/or depression. The impact of mental health issues on physical health costs the NHS £8bn a year [The King’s Fund].
Just as work can take a toll on workers’ health, poor physical and mental health can also hit your business. Stressed or ill staff are less productive and more likely to take time off. So, looking after workers’ mental and physical health isn’t just the right thing to do from a legal and moral perspective. It is from a business point of view, too. Here are five ways to do it…
1. Offer stress support
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. But when it reaches critical levels, it can be a major contributor to mental health problems and, in turn, unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking and poor diet. Nearly three quarters of Brits report feeling so stressed at times that they feel unable to cope, a recent Mental Health Foundation survey found.
Just over half (51%) of those say stress has triggered depression, while 61% say it led to anxiety. Forty six per cent either eat too much or eat unhealthily, 29% start drinking or drink more and 16% start smoking or smoke more due to stress. Alarmingly, 32% say stress triggers suicidal thoughts and 16% have self-harmed when stressed.
The government recommends that businesses formulate their own plans for promoting better mental health in the workplace, while promoting open conversations to raise awareness and reduce stigma and monitoring issues as they arise. But if you’re a small business employing 10 or fewer people, drawing up a mental health policy is a big ask.
Still, you need to take this seriously. Regular one-to-one meetings will promote more open lines of communication and help you spot issues as they arise. No one expects you to assume the role of counsellor, but if that’s what’s needed, consider an employee wellbeing scheme that gives staff access to stress management and counselling.
2. Encourage activity (but don’t preach)
We’ve all worked with a weekend warrior who spends the first few hours of every Monday bragging about the miles they ran/cycled/swam over previous days while the rest of the office was doing what normal people do. Don’t be that person. But it pays to encourage your staff to get active, because it helps diffuse stress and promotes better mental health.
That doesn’t necessarily mean free gym memberships. Consider enforcing mandatory lunchbreaks and banning eating at desks to encourage staff to get out for at least an hour every day. Involve staff in choosing a company charity and working together towards a sponsored sporting event.
3. Offer payday support and financial education
Debt, depression and anxiety feed off each other. Twenty-two per cent of people suffering with stress cite debt as a cause [Mental Health Foundation]. Half of people in Britain in problem debt also have a mental health problem and 86% say debt made their mental health issues worse [Money & Mental Health Policy Institute].
Now, no one would expect an employer to bail out staff experiencing financial difficulties, but there are reasonable steps you can take. Speak to your staff. Consider setting up a scheme that allows staff an advance on their salary in times of need. If financial difficulties persist, consider getting them access to impartial financial advice and education.
4. Help your staff access a (real) doctor
We’ve all been there. You or a loved one has symptoms – a cough, rash, lump, whatever – but can’t get to a doctor for days. So, the imagination takes over. The lump becomes cancer, the rash a flesh-eating virus, the cough emphysema. Google doesn’t help, what with its propensity to suggest the worst-case outcomes when presented with symptoms.
The NHS crisis doesn’t help either. With the demands of an ageing population rising and GP numbers falling, we’re all having to wait longer to see a doctor. Less than one in three of us get to see a doctor on the same day we ask for an appointment. On average, Brits have to wait for an average of 15 days before they see a doctor [2019 Pulse GP Survey].
That could mean 15 days of worry, often exacerbated by consultations with Dr Google (72% of us research symptoms online, research by Pew found). As an employer you can help diffuse that anxiety. Consider a staff wellness plan that gives workers 24-hour access to a GP. Doing so makes for a healthier, happier, more loyal and productive workforce.
5. Offer flexible working hours
Of course, if you give your staff greater flexibility over the hours they have to be at their desks, they will have more flexibility when it comes to running their own lives outside of work. That means fewer missed doctor or dentist appointments, more visits to kids’ sports days, yoga classes, etc, and, ultimately, less stress.
CIPD advice on offering flexible working states: “It allows employees to manage disability and long-term health conditions and caring responsibilities as well as supporting their mental health and stress. Flexible workers are more likely to be engaged… potentially generating 43% more revenue and improving performance by 20%.”
What’s more, it could be key to attracting and retaining talent. Thirty one per cent of employees polled in a recent Investors in People survey said they would choose flexible working over a pay rise if offered. According to the CIPD the higher levels of engagement flexible working fosters can cut staff turnover by as much as 87%.
Resulting in not just less stress for your staff, but less stress for you, too.