The importance of mental health is beginning to be more completely understood in the workplace. Employers recognise it can lead to poor performance, increased absence, lower morale and disengagement.
Yet despite this increased awareness by employers, stress and work are still highly interlinked with younger workers appearing to suffer more than their older colleagues.
There is also limited understanding of how integrated mental health is to overall wellbeing and the impact that it can have on physical and financial health.
Body, mind and pocket
Research conducted by YouGov found that mental health was very highly intertwined with physical and financial health.
Overall more than one in three (36%) of the 2,470 working adults surveyed had lived with mental ill health – 52% said they had faced financial difficulties and 30% a physical health problem.
The vast majority (81%) acknowledged that when they had experienced difficulties with their mental health, their physical health had suffered too.
And more than half (52%) admitted that their finances had been adversely affected under those situations.
This was echoed where physical or financial health was the primary source of concern:
71% experienced difficulties with their mental health and 40% witnessed financial issues when having a physical illness or injury
76% admitted financial difficulties had affected their mental health and 50% had suffered physically
Axa PPP, which commissioned the research, said the findings were supported by an NHS Digital report into comorbidity which found over a third of people with symptoms of a severe common mental disorder also had a chronic physical condition.
It found that asthma was twice as prevalent in those living with a mental health condition and that asthma and high blood pressure were associated with mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and phobias.
Overall, experiencing a chronic physical condition was linked to lower levels of mental wellbeing.
Axa PPP Healthcare director of psychological services Dr Mark Winwood noted that when employees are experiencing one problem, the link between these areas of wellbeing may lead to their negative experience being exacerbated.
“It’s a potentially toxic mix that calls for careful handling,” he said.
“When considering wellbeing initiatives, employers would be wise to take a holistic approach to enable employees to maintain their mental, physical and financial wellbeing.
“It’s important for the organisation’s leadership to promote a positive, supportive workplace culture where employees are encouraged to speak up and seek support for the challenges that are proving difficult to overcome. It’s also important for employers to ensure that line managers are suitably trained and supported to recognise and help employees when they’re struggling to cope,” he added.
Open honest culture
As HRD Connect revealed earlier this month, programmes which encourage an open culture and honest communications between employees and line managers, such as that at Guidant Group, can prove particularly supportive of employee wellbeing.
Recognising the importance of this relationship to aiding mental health is critical as stress remains the top health and safety concern in UK workplaces with work seen as the number one cause of stress in people’s lives.
The Trades Union Congress’ (TUC’s) biennial survey of more than 1,000 health and safety representatives found that stress was at the top of the list, with 70% citing it as a problem.
This was a higher proportion than in any previous TUC study, and the organisation noted that stress was one of the main causes of mental health problems, in particular anxiety and depression.
General secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The message from the shop floor is clear, stress is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Pressures of long working hours and low job security are being felt in workplaces across the UK.
“It’s in no-one’s interests to have overstretched workforces. People who experience high anxiety are less productive and are more likely to take time off.
“Stress is preventable if staff have reasonable workloads, supportive managers and a workplace free from violence, bullying and harassment,” she added.
Work is stressful
The willingness of employers to accept and understand that mental health is a key factor in the work and health of their employees was borne out in a further survey carried by JLT Employee Benefits.
More than half (55%) of those taking part in the survey of 120 people said they found work the most stressful influence on their lives.
This was followed by money (19%), family (13%), relationships (10%) and health (3%).
Group risk and health director Adrian Humphreys said employers needed to address stress by identifying and managing the key contributing factors within the workplace, as well as giving employees the tools to identify and obtain support for any mental health issues they are experiencing.
And it seems younger workers may be suffering more from workplace stress than their older colleagues.
Support the youngest
According to the Willis Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, half (50%) of Generation Y employees experiencing heightened levels of stress in the workplace.
This compared to 44% of Generation X staff and just one in three (35%) baby boomers.
The study of 1,895 UK employees found the top causes of workplace stress were inadequate staffing and low pay.
A lack of work-life balance and unclear and/or conflicting job expectations proved stressful for middle-aged and younger workers, while for baby boomers it was company culture and excessive organisation change.
Generation Y were more worried about their finances (64%) compared to Generation X (55%) workers and baby boomers (38%).
Prepare for the future
However younger workers appeared worry about their future rather than their current finances, with just 20% reporting they were struggling financially.
Willis Towers Watson senior consultant Rebekah Haymes said: “In an environment with tight margins, employers cannot easily manage issues around low pay and staffing levels. However, they can marshal resources and focus on providing guidance on stress management and coping strategies through their wellbeing programmes.
“Companies cannot afford to ignore the issue of stress for workers. To address workplace stress, employers first need to understand its root cause from their employees’ point of view.
“Those who base their efforts on misguided assumptions risk trying to solve the wrong problems, and could end up wasting money and alienating employees. Understanding employee views is key to ensuring support is directed to known issues and leads to more successful outcomes,” she added.