Mental health at work statistics are alarming. The latest Health and Safety Executive figures show that in 2017/ 2018 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health were accounted for by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. It is not hard to see why this area has increasingly become a focus for HR teams and senior managers.
In the professional services sector, the Big Four accountancy firms have led the way in mental health and wellbeing initiatives. PwC appointed a full time Mental Health Leader in January 2016, and, this time three years ago, launched a campaign aimed at encouraging people to talk about mental health at work. Deloitte launched a campaign in 2016 to reduce stigma and encourage early disclosure of issues and describes workplace wellbeing as “a professional imperative”. EY has trained over 500 staff as mental health first aiders, and KPMG has introduced the “Be Mindful” program to create a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences and gain support regarding mental health.
No silver bullet
It is clear that the accountancy firms are – and have for some time been – taking positive steps to tackle the issues. However, workplace wellness initiatives are (sadly) not the silver bullet when it comes to mental health issues at work. While these schemes indicate that an organisation is taking its people’s health seriously and contribute to a positive workplace culture with well-being at its centre, they do not tackle the root cause of the issues. To do this, firms need to be asking the tricky questions (with the often-uncomfortable answers), such as why are staff more stressed now than they were in the past, and what needs to change on a structural level to address this?
The former is an interesting question, as stress is not a new concept. Nor, in general, have workplaces become “worse” places to exist – in fact, they are more comfortable, cleaner and offer more perks (including in bigger firms, gyms, restaurants, doctors etc.) than ever. So why is it that recorded rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety are on an upward trajectory?
The ‘always-on’ world
A major factor is likely to be the “always-on” nature of business in the digital world. Technology has advanced at such a rate that it is now the norm for even junior employees in professional services firms to be equipped with a smartphone on their first day of work, which allows them to be connected to the workplace 24/7. Flexible working – the ability to log on to work systems at any time, from any place – which is often championed as a way of improving employees’ work/life balance, is now standard practice. These advances – which undoubtedly have many benefits – have resulted in the boundary between work and life becoming further blurred. For employees who are not able to resist the temptation, or who are placed under an expectation, to be online and available to their employers 24/7 – this can come at a serious cost to their mental and physical wellbeing, and, in the longer term, to the business (commercially, reputationally and legally).
“Seminars, training and support facilities are not going to have a genuine impact if the usual work pressures and targets, driving the underlying issues, remain the same”
What this suggests is that seminars, training and support facilities are not going to have a genuine impact if the usual work pressures and targets, driving the underlying issues, remain the same. Employees need to be released from any expectation (actual or perceived) to be available 24/7, and a culture of “more is more” when it comes to hours spent working needs to be put to an end, as it is simply not true. This is particularly challenging in the accountancy world of billable hours and client-driven demands, where long hours and tight deadlines are sometimes simply unavoidable. Change requires bold leaders who are prepared to model appropriate boundaries themselves – by switching off email at an appropriate time and actually taking holiday when they are on holiday – and who encourage their colleagues at all levels of seniority to do the same. Clearly, this is not going to solve mental health issues, but it might just put a brake on the steady increase in work-related stress, depression and anxiety that we have seen in recent years.
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Mental health in the workplace