The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that mental health is ‘a complete state of wellbeing’; people with good mental health are capable, resilient, productive and have good social support.
Work is good for us in many ways: it gives us structure, purpose and a sense of identity, all of which promote good mental health. Conversely, poor working conditions or work organisation can expose staff to psychosocial risks that can adversely affect their mental health.
In 2019, for its report, Third European survey of enterprises on new and emerging risks, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) surveyed European businesses on how health and safety risks are managed in the workplace. Over 60% reported having to deal with difficult people at work, such as customers, patients and pupils, as a risk factor. Other psychosocial risks reported included time pressure (over 40%) and long or irregular hours and poor communication (around 20% each).
In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimated in its September 2017 Health priority plan: Work-related stress, that work-related stress accounted for 45% of all working days lost in 2015/16 at a cost to the economy of over £5 billion. Work-related stress reduces productivity, not only because of absenteeism but also because stressed workers are less productive.
The business case for managing psychosocial risks and promoting mental wellbeing is compelling.
Managing psychosocial risks
There is sometimes a perception that psychosocial risks are more difficult to manage than physical risks. This is not the case.
The plan is to follow the same practical approach as for physical risks: identify, prioritise, take preventive action, monitor and review.
The key is getting participation, involving everyone in identifying and managing the risks and decision-making. Participation helps overcome barriers to talking about mental health, creates ownership and a positive risk prevention culture, and encourages an open and supportive working environment.
Promoting mental wellbeing
Employers are legally obliged to manage risks in the workplace, but good employers go further and actively promote mental wellbeing. For example, flexible-working patterns help busy employees to manage their work–life balance.
Good physical health is key to mental wellbeing, so encouraging healthy eating and supporting employees to take exercise should be part of the approach to improving mental health.
Good leadership is also important. Good leaders are approachable, supportive and inspiring. These individuals will make sure that their management team has the skills and training necessary to create and support strong, productive teams with high morale.
Weighing up the benefits
The benefits of supporting mental health far outweigh the costs. Employees are happier, more engaged and productive, and more likely to stay with the business. Overall business performance is improved and the costs of absenteeism are reduced. Everyone benefits.
Christa Sedlatschek is executive director at EU-OSHA