• Employees’ mental health ‘getting worse’, say HR professionals

  • 25 Jun 2015
  • Comments 6 comments

People Management poll shows problem still growing despite more willingness to talk

The state of mental health among UK employees has deteriorated, according to a People Management survey of HR professionals that suggests organisations’ efforts to tackle stress, depression and associated conditions may be missing the mark.

Almost half (43 per cent) of the 391 readers polled for a focus on mental health issues in PM’s July issue felt that the overall level of mental well-being among their staff had got worse in the past two years. Only 15 per cent felt it had improved, while 51 per cent said the number of working days lost to mental health issues had increased over the same period.

The findings point to an inability to tackle the root causes of mental ill-health.

“I thought we’d see reported mental health problems falling by now,” said Dr Jill Miller, CIPD research adviser, who added that the broader CIPD Absence Management Survey backs up the troubling trend. The CIPD’s figures show a constant climb in reported mental ill-health every year since 2010.

While Miller suggests increased willingness to talk about mental ill-health is a factor in its prevalence – 45 per cent of People Management respondents said staff were more likely to open up than two years ago – and wider economic considerations should also be factored in, organisational efforts to tackle the issue are clearly failing. All those polled offered some kind of formal support to those with mental health issues, from phased returns to work (reported by 95 per cent) to work assessments (88 per cent) and occupational health (87 per cent).

“Organisations might provide good well-being benefits, but employees might not know about them or be aware of how to access them,” said Miller. “When it comes to counseling, for example, it can be difficult to ask about it.”

She said desk drops of useful phone numbers may be a good practical starting point, but – like other experts who contributed to People Management’s feature article – Miller believes more fundamental causal issues have been ignored for too long.

“Things like job design, development opportunities and meaningful work all have a role to play. Workload is key – it’s the number one cause of work-related stress – and presenteeism remains quite high. Our recent Employee Outlook Survey said people didn’t want colleagues to have to pick up their work, or to just come back to more work themselves the next day.”

Stress – which is reported in 88 per cent of organisations – is followed by depression (85 per cent) and anxiety (83 per cent) as the most common manifestation of mental ill-health.

It’s a finding that’s familiar for confectionery giant Mars, which began to see higher levels of mental-health-related absence in its sales force in late 2011.

"We were in recession, the external sales environment was tough and this was causing tensions at home," said Julie Digby, vice-president people and organisation. "We introduced resilience workshops to help people cope with the changing world, identify the sources of their stress and suggested coping mechanisms to give them a greater sense of control."

A year later, mental health-related absence had almost disappeared, and employees not only reported better sleep and reduced anxiety but also improved work performance and productivity.

But according to Miller, this kind of holistic approach to the topic is relatively rare.

“For HR, the question has to be whether well-being is part of your people approach or a bolt-on,” she said.

“Think creatively about how you manage different demands inside and outside work, about recruitment, job design and the type of decisions people are asked to make in the business.”

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Comments (6)

    As a NHS professional managing psychological therapy services I find it frustrating to see these sorts of articles repeated in various forums. We know that there are very effective evidence based treatments for people experiencing mental ill health - as demonstrated by the National Improving Acces to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)programme offering quick acces to therapy for all.

    Within my own service we know that over 70% of people who complete therapy with our therapists get better, and yet the commercial world seems reluctant to engage with us to help their businesses!

    I would like to see far greater collaboration between corporate H.R. departments and local NHS psychological therapies services to re-engergise their workforce and help their staff and businesses thrive.

  • I see this time and time again in the role I do. Mental health awareness still has a long way to go before there is less stigma and a more compassionate approach to those experiencing it.

    As health and wellbeing is absolutely paramount to a productive and engaged workforce, has CIPD considered incorporating this topic into all levels of the CIPD qualifications. If we start to broach this subject and educate our future HR leaders now, perhaps we can start to build work environments where people feel OK to talk about this devastating illness.

  • This is not surprising as I see it a lot in my clients. But prevention is always easier than cure - it is about culture and leadership. Having said that, it is never too late to address these issues and the ROI can be experienced in years to come.

  • This and other articles like this that I have collected are not surprising.  It certainly isn't just about awareness and training of managers etc.  As a new Social Enterprise tackling stress prevention and early mental health intervention there are many more person-centred approaches that need to be considered. As our focus is very much at the beginning, we're looking at different methods and researching what works in a range of settings and environments. A case study we're writing up on which is not rocket science is a small department that have set up a staff 'peer support' initiative which is working really well. Another thought that came to mind is that the 'employee' Managers of tomorrow are the 'staff' of today who don't supervise or line-manage employees.  We need to be educating, training and teaching leadership and soft skills to these people BEFORE they become managers.  At the moment we are doing this the wrong way round. Surveys are indicating that poor management has a HUGE effect on staff's mental well-being.  If we can identify those who are interested in progressing their careers, who want to move up the ladder and become people managers, then we need to invest in these employees before they are given this role.  It's evident change is needed, and we see ourselves playing a part in that.  

  • I would say that one of the worse cases I have experienced is in the defence mod areas.

  • This is a really interesting article. Of course tackling the stigma is one huge part and this seems to be getting better. However you do need to make employees aware of your support?

    We help organisations increase wellbeing within their workplaces across the UK and the question we always ask is are the management team doing their bit? Managers need to be up skilled in spotting presenteeism and signs of mental health and stress. Regular one to ones are important too but are managers doing what they are supposed to be doing? Supporting employees with practical issues such as job design, workload, wellbeing etc. Do they know what support is available for emnployees? These are the current issues we tackle within our service mostly with mental health at work, across public and private sectors.