Time to talk: Managing stress and mental health in the workplace

There is still a stigma around mental health, preventing many senior charity leaders from acknowledging it within the workplace. But it's time to start opening the conversation.


The writer Annie Dillard once said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. The average person in the UK is likely to spend up to 100,000 hours at work over the course of their lifetime. For many people, this outweighs the number of hours spent at home, or with family, friends and loved ones.

On this basis, it comes as no surprise that the quality of our work heavily impacts the quality of our life. But, despite this, most jobs – even in professions deemed to be ‘low risk’ – have a potential for creating stress and anxiety.

In few sectors is this more prevalent than the charity sector. Last year, speaking on the Do More Good podcast about her own experiences of mental health, Mandy Johnson, the former chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, summed up an emotion commonly felt by those working in the charity sector.

“I’m aware of my tendency to push myself really hard, and I know that might have been exaggerated by my move into the charity sector,” she said. “Working for organisations I really cared about, combined with being a target-driven individual, meant that I was working really long hours and putting a lot of pressure on myself.”

But Johnson isn’t the only one to have struggled with mental health as a result of her work. Recent research from mental health charity, Mind, revealed seven in ten workers have experienced poor mental health at some point in their lives. The charity calculates the annual cost of poor mental health to employers as at between £33 billion and £44 billion.

Furthermore, the 2017 government report, Thriving at Work: of Mental Health and Employers, suggests some 300,000 people leave their jobs due to mental illness every year. Meanwhile, a report published by Mind in the same year found nearly half of all public sector workers have had to take time off because of their mental health, compared with a third in the private sector, highlighting the different levels of support available.

Mind’s survey found public sector workers were more likely to say their mental health was poor than those working in the private sector (15 per cent versus 9 per cent), and far more likely to say they have felt anxious at work on several occasions over a given month (53 per cent compared with 43 per cent).

Silence and fear

However, there is still a stigma around mental health, causing charity employers and employees alike to refrain from talking to others about personal issues. Separate research by Mind found that a culture of fear and silence around mental health still exists, and it’s a huge cost to employers who fail to create safe and open spaces for their employees.

The figures revealed more than one in five (21 per cent) had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them, while 14 per cent admitted to having resigned and 42 per cent had considered resigning when asked about the effects of workplace stress. More shockingly, perhaps, was the result that 30 per cent of staff disagreed with the statement ‘I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed’.

In June 2019, human rights charity Amnesty International was among one of the most recent charities to have been at the forefront of the publicity surrounding mental health in the charity sector, when two employees committed suicide within the space of a year.
Gaëtan Mootoo, a former employee, killed himself in Amnesty’s Paris offices in May 2018, leaving a note talking of stress and overwork. Just over a month later, Rosalind McGregor, who was a British intern working at Amnesty’s Geneva office, committed suicide at her family home. An inquiry into her death found it was a result of ‘personal reasons’, the BBC reported, but McGregor’s family claimed Amnesty could have done more to care for her mental health.

The charity’s secretary general, Kumi Naidoo ordered an independent review into the organisation’s culture and workplace after the deaths, which involved questioning hundreds of Amnesty staff. Results from the review later revealed the charity housed a “toxic” workplace, consisting of “secrecy and mistrust”.

But sadly, this is not the first time charities have been accused of failing to protect the wellbeing of their staff; Oxfam and Save the Children are also among those to have been criticised for mismanagement, which has acted to the detriment of staff and volunteers.

Higher acknowledgement

Discussions around mental health in the workplace are not new, and charities failing to incorporate it into their leadership agendas are lagging behind. The government has already published a series of documents, outlining the steps employers can take to ensure mental health is considered and notably, in 2018, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) took the decision to update its first aid guidance to include mental health alongside physical health when undertaking a “needs assessment”.

It suggests that employers consider ways to manage mental ill health in the workplace, which are “appropriate” for the organisation, and which might include “providing information or training for managers and employees, employing occupational health professionals, appointing mental health trained first aiders and implementing employee support programmes”.

The HSE goes on to point out that first aid training courses covering mental health, teach delegates how to recognise warning signs of mental ill health and help them to develop the skills and confidence to approach and support someone, while keeping themselves safe.

Research supports the widely accepted view that a preventive, rather than reactive approach towards mental health in the workplace brings about the best outcomes, and the Thriving at Work research paper indicates the importance of training senior members in looking after the mental health of teams.

Simple steps

In its 2018 guide on managing mental health in the workplace, the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) and Mind stressed that many of the most important things employers can do around mental health are small but meaningful gestures that make it easier for people to talk about their mental well-being.

“Small, inexpensive measures – such as offering buddy systems, generous annual leave and making sure everyone has regular catch-ups with their manager – can make a big difference,” Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind explains.

“There are also lots of resources – many of which are free – on the Mental Health at Work website, created by Mind, with support from The Royal Foundation, Heads Together and 11 other organisations. Additionally, regularly surveying staff anonymously is a great way to get honest feedback on how supported employees feel,” she adds.

“Our annual Workplace Wellbeing Index is a benchmark of best policy and practice helping forward-thinking employers find out where they are doing well and where they could improve their approach to mental health at work. This year over 100 employers took part.”

Flexible working

An ongoing trend towards flexible or home working might seem like a good offer for many charity leaders who wish to support staff in need of time away from the office. Operating flexible working hours allows staff to have greater flexibility and achieve a better work/life balance.

“Flexible working initiatives have gained almost as much attention as the wider mental health discussion recently, with many employers having already introduced these effective strategies to their organisations,” Sarah West, trainee solicitor and employment specialist at Shulmans LLP says.

“The benefits of allowing employees to work flexibly are nonexhaustive, with a more engaged workforce an inevitable result. Flexible working allows employees to change their physical environment, which can have a positive effect on their productivity and wellbeing. Employees also value the additional level of trust from their employer when they are able to work flexibly, whether from home or in different patterns.

“To an employee, balancing work and home life is more of a priority than ever before, and flexible working allows employees more opportunities to arrange their private appointments as and when needed. For instance, flexible working helps to avoid situations where employees may be reluctant to seek medical help for fear of reprimand for missing work.”

However, flexible working hours, particularly home working, can come with its risks, too. While it offers a good opportunity for staff to create a better work/life balance, it isn’t for everyone, and staff should ideally be given a choice about their working environment to ensure it doesn’t have a negative impact on employee mental health through increased pressure, uncertainty and reduced social contact.

“Our relationships with our colleagues are often a big part of what helps us stay well and be productive at work, but home workers don’t always have the same opportunities to connect with people as their office-based colleagues. This may result in some home workers feeling isolated and lonely,” Mamo explains.

“If you work in a different space to colleagues, it’s harder for your manager or co-workers to spot signs if you’re experiencing stress or poor mental health. That’s why managers should regularly catch up with home workers, to support them with their work and give them an opportunity to talk about any problems they are facing. This is especially true for new starters who will be working from home permanently.”

Effective communication

But far too often, employees are scared to tell their manager about a mental health problem. Mind’s research found less than half of people who had been diagnosed with a mental health problem had told their manager.

“Organisations need to send a clear signal to staff that their mental health matters and being open about it will lead to support, not discrimination,” Mamo says.

“A simple way to communicate this is to explain that mental health will be treated in the same way as physical health. Organisations can back this commitment up with a clear mental health strategy and specific policies to ensure employees experiencing mental health problems get the support they need straight away.”

Research carried out by Opinium in an online survey of 502 UK senior decision makers and a public survey of 1,300 employees; found that 40 per cent of the senior decision takers had experienced a loss within their organisation as a result of employees continuing to work while experiencing mental health problems.

But despite this, a quarter of the senior executives surveyed admitted their organisation did not offer any workplace mental health support and, perhaps more worryingly, 40 per cent said they would prefer employees experiencing mental health problem related to stress, anxiety or depression to continue working rather than taking time off.

While there are clearly steps being made to ensure mental health is spoken about among the charity sector, at senior level, there is still a long way to go.

The overall goal? Matt Pepper, wellbeing practitioner and author of the book Happiness: The Inside Job explains communication is essential, and that as a leader, you’ll notice happier staff take fewer sick days. “They are healthy, fired-up, happy and creative individuals that create a dynamic and far more harmonious and productive team,” he explains.

“People being switched on rather than switched off can make all the difference and offering a supportive wellness-enhancing package makes sure an organisation keeps the best people, and get the best from them.” ■

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