What responsibility do employers have to educate us about the risk of negative stress at work?

Nicola Swankie
By Nicola Swankie | 2 December 2019
Nicola Swankie

Stress, anxiety and burnout have all been big headlines in our industry in 2019, one of the big stories being the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognising burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

There is another part to the WHO story that will be made clearer in 2020, which is the fact the World Health Organization is about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.

The interesting part of this for me is will these new guidelines bring new responsibilities for employers to show they are being more proactive around looking after their employees mental wellbeing?

In 2007 I was working in one of the top creative agencies in London as an account manager, and I was struggling. I distinctly remember the day I couldn’t quite make the whole tube ride to work, when we got halfway I quietly hopped off the train, crossed the platform and travelled straight back in the opposite direction. After calling in sick, I then spent most of the day staring up at a tree on leafy Clapham Common. It was at that moment I decided to seek out help.

After a few days off and a session with a counselor, I sheepishly returned to my desk and had to explain my absence. I was so nervous, but on delivering my news one of my account directors simply responded with, “Nicola, didn’t you know, pretty much everyone here is suffering from some sort of anxiety”. She was not in the least bit phased and in fact, things pretty much carried on as normal, a few weeks later I do believe I even got my first Blackberry. Little did we know back then how more intense it was going to get when we could literally take the chaos of the office home in our pocket.

That was in the UK over a decade ago, in 2018 numbers from their Health & Safety Executive estimate that today £26 billion is being lost due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety across the country. In Australia, that number is thought to be closer to $180 billion each year in recent numbers from the Productivity Commission.

Their official data shows that, over their lifetime, half of Australians will be affected by mental ill-health including anxiety and depression - but up to a million people are not getting the help they need. These findings prompted them to recommend sweeping changes to health services, schools - such as appointing "wellbeing leaders" to support staff and students - along with workplaces, housing and the justice system. Speaking specifically to workplaces they recommended mental health should "explicitly be included in workplace health and safety" codes of practice and no-liability clinical treatment provided for mental health-related workers compensation claimants.

Accenture in the UK also recently did a study that shines a light on the insight that it seems the younger demographic are the ones who need the most help at work, younger individuals are almost twice as likely as their more senior peers to be experiencing issues with their mental health right now. Only 6/10 of the 18-25 year-olds and fewer than half of those aged 26- 30 had received any training, information or advice about taking care of their mental health before entering the workplace and interestingly the 18-25 year old age group were also the least likely to tell someone at work that they were experiencing issues with their mental health.

My call is if you are a business leader, especially one with a younger team, fresh into their career and you do not have a program in place, is 2020 the time to put this topic firmly on the leadership agenda?

There are some positive examples out there of companies taking positive, proactive action to help keep their people productive, present and thriving in their work environment.

● Tech giant CISCO says that they are currently paying for 7% of their workforce to either go through mental health treatment or undergo some sort of substance abuse treatment and offers its employees a five-session course designed to enhance concentration, resiliency and creative thinking, where participants learn simple cognitive strategies and engage in mental training exercises to optimise their performance at work.

● Unilever uses an approach called the Wellbeing Passport, which is for new joiners to articulate how they like to work, what helps them work well and what holds them back, as well as providing a framework for colleagues and line manager that moves with them as they grow in the business.

● PwC has partnered with mental health technology company Medibio to help employees with their psychological welfare through a data-driven corporate mental wellness app called Ilumen. Ilumen is a biometric and data-driven application that monitors employee behaviour and patterns, using them to provide employers with a detailed set of recommendations to improve health and performance.

While it does essentially come down to an individual to look after their own mental health, you can’t force people to go to meditation if that is just not their thing. It does seem that we are entering an era that there will be a greater emphasis on employers having responsibilities for providing education and training to their teams. Helping increase our awareness of how to manage our own mental wellbeing and having well thought through strong policies and procedures in place to help protect the valuable people that make up their organisations.

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Nicola Swankie a former social agency MD and victim herself of ambition-related burnout. This journey, coupled with the observation there wasn’t a huge amount of practical solution to help give teams more resilience resources inspired her to create The Resilients, a training agency which specialises in helping teams proactively build resilience strategies before high pressure times hit.

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14. More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.

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