Supporting employee mental wellbeing: tips on getting started

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Stress at work is a major cause of ill health and can have a significant negative impact on business performance, but there are practical ways of preventing and reducing it.

Billed as the year of the ‘Great Resignation’, 2021 saw large numbers of UK workers leaving their jobs. Among the reasons given were hostile work environments with higher levels of stress, poor work/life balance and long-term job dissatisfaction.

So, what key conclusions can we draw from this? Well, a variety of research – including the report, Wellbeing & Productivity: A review of the literature, from the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) – makes clear that investing in measures to support the physical and mental health and wellbeing of an organisation’s staff is critical not only to helping them cope with the daily challenges and stresses of their work, but also to boosting their engagement with their jobs and in turn the overall productivity and long-term success of the business.

The first step is to assess the areas of work design that could affect stress levels. Photograph: iStock

However, despite research like the CUSP report showing that a wellbeing programme that is specifically tailored to the needs of a business and its staff can deliver benefits like enhanced productivity – and many employers introducing a variety of measures in an attempt to support the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of workers as part of a post-pandemic shift to a ‘people first’ approach – many businesses are still coming up short.

As a result, ineffective management of work-related health and wellbeing risks by employers means large numbers of employees are experiencing poor physical and mental wellbeing and businesses are failing to perform to their best.

Today’s key occupational health and safety challenges include the risk of poor mental or physical health as a result of hybrid and remote working, and poor mental health arising from work pressures in general – such as excessive workloads and detrimental relationships, like conflict and bullying.

For example, home workers may experience work-related stress and poor mental wellbeing if they are unable to obtain support from managers and colleagues. Also, if contact is sporadic between them and their manager and colleagues, the home worker may feel disconnected or isolated, which in turn can affect their performance and potentially their stress levels or mental health.

So, what kind of steps can an employer take to create a culture that effectively supports the mental and physical health and wellbeing of employees, and how can independent health, safety and occupational hygiene professionals help them to achieve this step-change?

The current UK workforce health and wellbeing landscape

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an estimated 914,000 British workers reported suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22.

David Flower: "People are an organisation’s most valuable asset."

Given that in total 1.8 million workers in Britain reported some form of work-related ill health (new or long-standing cases) during the same period, this means stress, depression or anxiety account for 51 per cent of all work-related ill health cases. Also, 17 million working days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety in 2021/22 – 55 per cent of all the working days lost due to all types of work-related ill health.

Of course, there is a proven link between poor mental health and poor physical health. People who suffer from stress caused by psychosocial risk factors such as tight deadlines, high workloads and demanding supervisors – often experience adverse physical changes, making them susceptible to musculoskeletal problems (like back pain) and other health problems (like headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances).

When there is an imbalance between the pressures and other demands placed on employees and their physical and mental resources for coping, their mental and physical health can suffer, and they can perform poorly. Stress can also negatively affect the business itself – for example, leading to lower productivity, human error, increased sickness absence and high staff turnover.

To reduce the risk, employers need to take a strategic and forward-thinking approach. This means assessing the risk of stress-related ill health from work activities and taking action to control the risks. This involves taking steps such as ensuring workers’ skills and abilities are matched to the demands of the job and the job tasks are achievable within the employee’s agreed hours of work.

Taking steps to protect workers from stress – and to support their mental wellbeing – can result in a variety of benefits for a business, including:

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Fewer accidents, cases of ill health and associated liabilities
  • More energised and happier staff
  • Improved staff retention and reduction in staff turnover
  • Improvements in productivity and staff morale
  • Improved company reputation.

What does the research show?

For over 50 years, the IOM (Institute of Occupational Medicine) has striven to improve the health of workers across the world. IOM’s experts conduct research into all forms of workplace health and wellbeing, and identify, promote and apply solutions to prevent work-related ill health and support the health and wellbeing of employees.

For example, IOM has carried out significant research into the causes of stress-related and psychological problems associated with work; the impact of stress on workers and businesses; and ways of effectively reducing the risk of stress and supporting employees’ psychological wellbeing for leading bodies, such as the European Commission and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

IOM has also undertaken research and advisory work into occupational exposure to other hazards and risks, including how exposure can be detrimental to physical and mental health.

Research has shown that physical hazards – such as loud noise, inadequate ergonomic design of tasks, workstations and equipment, and the inhalation of harmful airborne contaminants, such as dusts and fumes – may contribute to (and cause) employee stress and poor psychological wellbeing.

Meanwhile, the common causes of stress and poor psychological wellbeing at work include excessive work demands, long and inflexible working hours, bullying, harassment and employees having little control or say over how their work is organised. The growth in home working – which has led to some staff working longer hours and finding it harder to switch off – may also be contributing to stress and poor psychological health.

Unreasonable deadlines and an overload of tasks can have a negative effect on wellbeing. Photograph: iStock

The emergence of an ‘always on’ culture – where employees are constantly connected (or feel tempted to connect) to their work via electronic devices like mobile phones, and feel obliged to answer communications outside normal working hours – may also be contributing to poor psychological wellbeing by blurring the boundaries between office and family life , adding to tiredness and leading to longer working hours.

IOM’s research, and that of others, shows that prolonged exposure to harmful levels of work stress has significant repercussions for the emotional, behavioural, cognitive, physical and mental wellbeing of individuals.

For example, employees who are subject to prolonged stress at work may find it difficult to concentrate, struggle to engage with their work, suffer a loss of motivation and confidence, demonstrate poor timekeeping and become irritable, tearful, sensitive or aggressive. They may also continue to attend work despite being unwell and unable to perform to their best (known as presenteeism), or take more time off than normal.

As well as having an adverse effect on employee health, stress is a major cause of low morale among individuals and teams, and can result in problems with staff retention. For example, a Deloitte survey of US professional workers found that nearly 50 per cent of millennials reported leaving a job because they felt burnt out due to prolonged, unmanageable stress.

How can businesses improve health and wellbeing?

For a business to perform successfully, employees must be healthy and engaged with their work and the organisation’s wider goals. However, for people to perform to their best and maintain good psychological health, they must feel they are genuinely listened to, included in decision-making about how they do their work, consulted about changes affecting them and adequately supported by their managers and colleagues.

Creating a culture of psychological wellbeing therefore starts with directors and managers leading from the top and openly communicating with staff about the causes of, and best ways of tackling, work-related stress and supporting employee mental health. Leaders must also invest adequate time, resources and commitment to reducing the impact of stress on employees’ health.

The first step is to assess the areas of work design that could affect stress levels, such as excessive job demands, a lack of control over how the work is done, poor support from managers and whether employees have opportunities to influence planned changes affecting them.

Employers should then work in partnership with employees to decide on practical ways of reducing stress – such as ensuring jobs are designed to be within the capabilities of employees, allowing employees control over their pace of work and when they take breaks, and preventing and dealing with unacceptable behaviours, such as bullying.

The HSE’s Management Standards provide a framework employers can use to identify and manage the key areas of work design that can affect stress levels. The standards cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates.

The standards help employers to assess the current level, extent and causes of work-related stress, and provide a framework for working in partnership with employees and their representatives to decide on practical improvements to reduce stress and prevent workers’ suffering poor mental and physical health.

For example, the HSE Management Standards Stress Indicator tool is a useful survey that can be used to gather data anonymously from employees about working conditions known to be potential causes of stress. The survey consists of 35 questions asking employees how they feel about various aspects of their work and the information can be used (along with other sources, like direct feedback from staff), to identify the causes of stress and ways of preventing and managing them.

IOM’s psychology professionals have extensive expertise in managing occupational stress and can provide expert advice on how to use HSE’s Stress Indicator Tool and get the most from the findings by improving the design of tasks, the workplace culture and the working environment.
Following a stress risk assessment, employers can take a variety of steps to prevent and reduce stress. The most appropriate and effective control measures will depend on factors such as whether the stressors are physical or psychosocial, the size of the organisation and the resources available in the business.

It is vital that the process of assessing and reducing stress is not a one-off exercise. In other words, employers should prevent and manage the root causes on an ongoing basis. This means continuously working with employees to identify and address any problems at work that could cause stress, and making steady improvements over time. For example, line managers must regularly talk to staff about possible stressors at work and ways of removing or reducing them.

Ways to reduce psychosocial risks at work

The suggested measures below are divided into forward-thinking primary interventions that can be implemented at an organisational level to target the causes of stress at source across the business; and reactive, secondary interventions, designed to manage an identified problem a specific individual is experiencing.

When deciding on the measures to take to tackle stress at an organisational level – and where an individual reports a problem that the majority of employees are not experiencing – it is vital to consult the organisation’s employees (and the individual) on the design and ongoing review of the best ways of tackling stress. Some examples of practical measures to take include:

Primary interventions

1. Ensuring employees take adequate rest breaks – whether people are working from home or in the organisation’s physical workplace, it is important employees are aware of the importance of and allow sufficient time for breaks. For employers, this includes ensuring there is a clear end to the working day for all employees (for example, by checking staff are not working outside normal hours). This is particularly important for home workers, who can be tempted to work longer hours or fail to take adequate breaks. In France, the government has established a right-to-disconnect law requiring certain large employers to agree policies on employees’ right to disconnect from technology after working hours.

2. Open communication and support – a supportive work environment makes an enormous difference to wellbeing. A culture of openness, trust and transparency where colleagues feel psychologically safe, and confident to ask for support if they need it, will help to reduce any adverse effects from stress.

3. Model good behaviour – staff often leave organisations because poor management practices contribute to or directly cause stress. For example, excessive monitoring of employees’ working style and movements; asking staff to work late at short notice; setting unrealistic deadlines; failing to consult staff about changes affecting them; and failing to regularly ask staff about any emerging issues and pressures are all major causes of stress. Therefore, managers should set a good example when it comes to managing stress. Effective measures to take include having regular one-to-one’s with staff to checkd how they are coping; ensuring employees can develop skills to help them undertake new and challenging pieces of work; and allowing employees to have a say over the way their work is organised and undertaken through project meetings, one-to-one’s and performance reviews.

Secondary interventions

1. Allowing sufficient time and resources to complete tasks – unreasonable deadlines and an overload of tasks can have a negative effect on wellbeing. It is important to ensure tasks are manageable; individuals and teams have the skills, time and resources to cope with the work allocated to them; and deadlines are realistic.

2. Ensuring staff have appropriate training for their role and are aware of their roles and responsibilities – this will ensure jobs are compatible with employees’ skills and abilities and help ensure workers know what is expected of them. This is important as having defined work objectives and clarity around job requirements can reduce stress.

3. Offering resources and support to help deal with issues outside the workplace (i.e. stress management programmes) – employees may experience personal or ‘home-related’ problems that impact on their performance at work and their perception of the stress arising from their work (such as care responsibilities affecting their energy levels or financial worries). Employers should therefore consider – and promote – ways the business will support staff if they are experiencing problems either in or outside work, such as adaptations to the work, changes to working hours and access to external counselling services paid for by the business. This will help employees feel that they are in a supportive environment, where they are listened to and valued.

A supportive work environment makes an enormous difference to wellbeing. Photograph: iStock

Pathways to improving physical workplace risk

Although it is well-documented that exposure to physical hazards at work – such as dust, chemicals and biological agents – often leads to physical illness and disease, these exposures can also result in stress, especially if employees feel the employer has a complacent attitude to them.

Employers have a duty under legislation such as COSHH to assess the risk of employees being exposed to hazardous substances that could cause problems like lung disease and to implement effective measures to either prevent exposure or reduce it as far as is reasonably practicable.

Occupational hygienists can provide practical advice on ways of preventing and reducing exposure, through measures such as:

  • Quantifying levels of risk – accurate sampling and measurement (for example, of the level of contaminants in the workplace air), coupled with laboratory analysis by independent experts, can help evaluate the level of exposure to harmful substances, to ensure it meets legal limits

  • Control – based on the risk assessment and other analysis, occupational hygienists can review the existing exposure control measures, and suggest ways of changing how a task is carried out to reduce exposure – such as adopting engineering controls, like local exhaust ventilation (LEV) to capture and remove airborne contaminants

  • Selecting and issuing suitable personal protective equipment (PPE) – although PPE is generally not as effective in reducing exposure as introducing controls like LEV, occupational hygienists can provide advice and help on the selection and use of PPE, including respirator face-fit testing to ensure the equipment is providing adequate protection, and employee training on the correct use of PPE.

If employees are working from home, employers must also take steps to protect them from health and safety risks arising from working on computers and laptops, known as display screen equipment (DSE). Employees can experience pain and discomfort from DSE work – for example, back pain from having an unsuitable chair or spending prolonged periods at their desk without a break.

As a result, employers must assess the risks of employees using DSE at home and take appropriate steps to reduce issues such as discomfort and eyestrain. This will generally include ensuring employees have suitable office-type furniture and advising them on the importance of taking adequate breaks.

People are an organisation’s most valuable asset, but if staff are to thrive and perform to their best at work, employers must take adequate steps to promote and support their physical and mental wellbeing. As well as helping a workforce to thrive, supporting employee health and wellbeing will help a business to attract and retain skilled, productive and happy employees.

For more information on IOM’s services see:

David Flower is senior occupational hygienist at Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM)


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