April marks Stress Awareness Month, an initiative from the Stress Management Society raising awareness and understanding for the modern-day stress epidemic in the workplace and beyond.
As the long-term impact of the past two years becomes more apparent, there are increasingly frequent calls for workplaces to do more to protect employee mental health. A recent Mental Health Foundation survey estimates that the mental health problems are now costing the UK economy around £118billion a year, and the cost in the workplace is estimated to be in excess of £2,000 per employee per year1. Furthermore, it is estimated that 59% of long-term absence is caused by stress and mental illness 2
Workplaces that are open and inclusive around mental health and have invested in awareness and skills training to manage mental health, are better at creating an environment where employees feel safe to talk about the pressures they are feeling.
The term ‘stress’ means something different for each of us, and at Mental Health at Work we view this as an invitation for a conversation. Having a trusted colleague or manager available for a confidential and non-judgemental conversation enables us talk about what is on our mind. If that individual is also trained to ask open and reflective questions, then often a conversation is enough. The power of this conversation can be strengthened if this is backed up with signposting for relevant and timely support, including employee assistance programmes, and if managers are open to considering reasonable adjustments. If an individual can have this conversation at an early stage, when they feel they are moving away from being of sound mental health, then these actions can help an individual return to health.
What practical solutions can be incorporated into my working day to relieve stress?
Practical solutions for managing stress at work will be an individual’s decision. Our mental health is unique, and one size does not fit all.
Having conversations, particularly with our line managers, about mental health can help support us to manage our mental health and wellbeing at work. A structured conversation, built around a wellness action plan, which asks open questions around how you stay well at work, can help both manager and employee to agree what works for an individual and how this can be accommodated within each role and workplace.
Having trained experts in listening and signposting, such as the Mental Health at Work Mental Health Allies®, can be very helpful as an alternative resource for individuals who do not want to speak to their line manager, ensuring that everyone in the workplace has someone who they can speak to, when and where they need to.
When should I seek professional support for stress?
Stress is not a diagnosable mental health issue. At Mental Health at Work, we encourage early conversations in the workplace about our mental health: with colleagues, with managers, with Mental Health Allies and sometimes with human resources or occupational health, along with early access to the right signposting.
If this is not enough to support a movement back to health and we move towards issue or illness, we should then seek professional help. The role of the workplace is not to diagnose or advise, but if it can provide an environment that supports our psychological health and safety, then early action may be all that is needed to keep us well.
Having an open and honest conversation is a great starting point
As we all know, a conversation is two-way. If you want to raise it with your manager, part of the success of that outcome is how prepared your manager is to receive that conversation. Have they gone through awareness training so that they’ve removed their own personal bias and stigma around mental health? That is important, because you need the person you are talking to, to be able to listen to you. Part of the answer to this is going into the conversation not expecting your manager to solve it for you, because actually that’s not their job, and they’re not qualified to do that. Go in with the responsibility that your mental health is your mental health, and no one else is an expert in it. You would ideally like your manager to listen and ask how they can support you to be able to manage your work, not to be able to fix the issue. It is important that, ahead of the conversation, you have thought about some suggestions about what might be helpful for you.
At Mental Health at Work, we believe that what’s right for one person is not going to be right for another. This is not always about less work. There is a myriad of complexities at an individual level, so, do the thinking beforehand, about what could make the difference for you.
Having more than one suggestion is important, because this is going to be a conversation. It might be that it would really help you if you could leave at four o’clock on a Thursday. It might be within your managers sphere of influence to say yes to that — but it might not be, and that’s also perfectly reasonable. But you then have to think, ‘what else might I want to suggest?’ Think as broadly as possible about how the workplace can support you, or what your request to the workplace is. Your mental health is your mental health. No one else is an expert in it.
Our wellbeing at work is critical. It is important that we recognise in ourselves and in others when we might be moving away from it. The earlier that you can act, the more likely that you’re going to be able to have some preventative or protective action that enables you to move back to health. Don’t delay it. The earlier you can have the conversation, the better.
1 Mental Health and Employers, Deloitte, Jan 2020
2 CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work, March 2020