Midlands Enterprise Universities has a wealth of expertise in psychology and mental health and our academics work in some of the best international research groups in the country, with many classified as world leading.
Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at Birmingham City University Craig Jackson is interested in the effect of workplaces and working on people’s health and psychological wellbeing and has contributed to both of the leading UK textbooks on occupational health and a number of Health and Safety Executive reports.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 (13th to 19th May) he’s has written a blog post on what organisations need to be aware of and how they can create a positive workplace culture.
As an occupational psychologist, I’m interested in the link between work and health and how the job you do can possibly make your lifespan shorter. The relationship between work and psychological health has been overlooked in the past as traditionally we’ve focused on the effects of the workplace on physical health in people like coal miners and those with the ‘dirty jobs’ who have contracted job-related illnesses such as coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. In fact, it’s only in the last 15 years that we’ve turned our attention to the psychological effects of work even though stress in the workplace has been around since the mid-1990s which was when the so-called ‘stress epidemic’ first emerged.
The rise of the ‘always-on’ culture
We have also overlooked role of email in initiating this epidemic but it’s no coincidence that since we started using email there’s been an increase in stress-related illnesses year on year in the UK (HSE statistics). Before then there was a slower pace to work but the introduction of email meant we could be given more work to do, by more people, more quickly. Thanks to email and increased connectivity, it’s easier for people to take work home with them than ever before and although it’s an obvious problem in many organisations, it’s not tackled very well. Some companies are very good at promoting a ‘right to disconnect’ culture which ensures employees do not feel pressured to send or reply to emails out of hours, or to immediately respond to emails, but many are not. Also, some employees feel more pressure than others to reply promptly to emails for fear of being out of the loop or not seen as part of ‘the group’ which can result in anxiety, burnout and diminished work-family balance.
Another contributory factor to stress in the workplace is organisational justice or the perceived lack of it. Research has shown that people who work for a company that is fair and just, or perceived to be so, have a far higher tolerance level for the ‘little things that cause us chronic stress’ than those who work for organisations which are perceived to be unfair or unjust. For instance, if people who don’t pull their weight don’t get reprimanded, workers can get the perception that their workplace is unfair. Conversely, if staff don’t get rewarded or promoted for their hard work, they will perceive that their workplace is unfair or unjust which tends to result in more sickness absence days, longer sickness spells, and ultimately increased turnover of staff.
As an organisation you perhaps feel the need to ‘sell the sizzle rather than the steak’ as it were and introduce initiatives such as employee of the month or annual staff awards and paid-for social events which can have a positive impact on workers. While incentives like this can have a positive impact, ultimately employers need to ensure workers feel their workplace is fair and they are valued by their employer which in turn creates a positive feeling in the workplace. A positive culture in the workplace will encourage a sense of pride and ownership amongst the employees. When people take pride, they invest their future in the organisation and work hard to create opportunities that will benefit the organisation.
On a more sinister level I have recently noticed an increase in digital workplace harassment. Unfortunately, more and more men are sending unsolicited graphic pictures of (their) genitals to women in the workplace. Very little research has been done into this covert behaviour as it’s not often reported but in my experience it’s either born out of malice or resentment as a way of ‘settling the score’ or exerting power over the victim or as a way of instigating a romantic relationship. It’s an emerging workplace issue. Similarly, stalking is on the rise. According to the British Crime Survey, approximately 20% of females and 10% of males receive unwanted stalking behaviours over their lifetime, and this figure continues to increase annually. Worryingly for employers, approximately 50% of stalking cases are done via the workplace, partly because it’s easy to access people’s personal details at work.
Stalking can have a huge impact on a victim, especially if the stalking occurs in both domestic and workplace spheres. It can lead to feelings of fear and anxiety, and develop into physical health problems, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Initially, many victims do not report early-stage stalking incidents to managers, friends or even the police, for fear they may be judged as being somehow responsible and because they do not want to appear to cause a ‘fuss’ for the perpetrator. However, as the cumulative impact of stalking progresses, behavioural and psychological changes within a victim may make their situation more noticeable – for instance, poor timekeeping, irritability, nervousness, reduced social functioning, increased number of sickness absence spells, poor concentration or performance at work, and increased GP/healthcare appointments.
The link between workplaces and stalking is only just being understood – many stalking relationships develop from workplace interactions. Some stalkers can of course be colleagues of a victim, or even customers/clients who have come into some form of contact. A smaller number of stalkers choose victims’ particular workplaces or professions because the victim’s job may give them easy access with little challenge, such as telephonists or receptionists, or other customer-facing roles. Workplaces can often be flashpoints of stalking behaviour, and almost half of stalkers present themselves at their victim’s workplace, creating risks not only for the victims but also for other colleagues who may interact with the stalker, as well as other members of the public who may legitimately be at the premises involved. Many stalking victims leave employment because of stalker activities, not just because of health-related problems brought about because of the distress, but as a final way of trying to avoid being stalked altogether.
Because the relationship between workplaces and stalking can often be crucial, there are measures that should focus on victims’ places of occupation. Stalking policies should be in place to minimise risks to all those who could potentially be involved; to keep the victim working while being stalked if they so wish; and to support the victim if they need time off work (owing to the effects outlined above, as well as for legal matters). Such policies should also make it clear that employees who engage in stalking behaviours themselves will be investigated, and disciplinary action will be taken against any such employee if criminal procedures are initiated.
The ‘value’ of work
We now understand how psychologically important work is – when you’re at work it takes your mind off your problems, concerns and worries. Research shows people who work generally live longer than those who don’t, but it’s also important to have meaningful work and organisations should ask themselves how they can make their employees’ work meaningful.
This is particularly relevant for those in elementary occupations such as people working in factories who are doing unchallenging, repetitive work which may have a low level of ‘meaning’. As a result, they may have very low stress tolerance levels. For example, if someone is suffering from musculoskeletal problems such as back pain and is working in an unchallenging environment doing tedious work, there’s nothing to distract them from their aches and pains and they will become more noticeable. Employers need to find a way to make this type of work more engaging and meaningful.
Similarly, those engaged in apparently meaningless work are more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Since the recession, rates of suicide have started increasing again and research has shown that there’s a relationship between the type of work you do and how likely you are to commit suicide. Some occupations have an increased risk of suicide owing to the perceived meaningless nature of the work and the value placed on these professions by society. An analysis by the Office for National Statistics commissioned by Public Health England shows among men, low-skilled labourers in construction have a risk that is three times higher than the average for the country while men in skilled construction jobs also have an increased risk. Care workers of both genders face a suicide risk that is almost twice the national average, according to the data. If your job is perceived by society as low value, it can have a negative effect on your self-esteem and the resulting options that may be open to you.
It used to be that young males were most at risk of suicide but now its middle-aged men aged 45 or older, especially those who have lost their jobs or suffered a relationship breakdown. As many workplaces are often well-populated by middle-aged men it’s a good forum for tacking these issues. Work is the biggest occupier of our time (apart from sleep) which is why it’s important that organisations promote a positive, healthy workplace culture.
Simple things organisations can do to include
- Promoting an open and honest culture where people feel able to talk to line managers about any issues they be experiencing, mental health-related or otherwise.
- Training for line managers on how to support staff with mental health issues.
- Having clear policies and practices that encourage a good work/life balance.
- Developing a ‘right to disconnect’ culture which also encourages employees not to send ‘pillow emails’ (first thing / last thing in the day) unnecessarily, and to use email scheduling to send mail at times of the day that do not encourage other employees to respond to out of hours emails.
- Creating a healthy work environment by providing free fruit for instance, which is not only nutritious but also encourages staff to walk to the canteen or making healthy food cheaper.
For further advice on supporting mental health at work visit the Mental Health Foundation website