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Today is World Mental Health Day.   Mental illness affects 1 in every 4 adults in the UK each year. Sadly though, nine out of every 10 of those affected experience stigma and discrimination, which may be why only 3 in every 10 people suffering mental illness seek help. The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is wellbeing in the workplace. Work can be an important part of life:- essential for wellbeing and personal development as well as making a person feel fulfilled and independent.

The importance of work for wellbeing

Private Client Solicitor86% of people surveyed recently by The Mental Health Foundation, Oxford Economics and Unum felt that their job contributed more positively than negatively to their mental health and that being at work was important to protect and maintain their mental health. However, the same survey found that almost 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions and that better mental health support in workplaces could save £8 billion a year for UK businesses. The study suggested that employers undertake workplace intervention in the mental health of their employees by promoting well-being at work through information and advice, risk assessment questionnaires and workshops aimed at dealing with mental health.  They calculate that the costs of this employer intervention would be significantly less than the net profits which would be generated by their well-adjusted workforce.

Workplace culture- flexible working

Research carried out by the Hoxby Collective shows that presenteeism is strongly linked to mental health issues in the workplace and that a nine to five culture which rewards people working overtime but frowns on flexible hours was bad for employee’s mental wellbeing.  A working culture where there was a belief that the best workers were the ones doing the most hours was to blame for over 60% of those surveyed feeling pressure to work late in order to show commitment, because others work late, because their boss works late or because it was seen as being necessary for  promotion. The study contended that to challenge that, employers need to lead by example by leaving on time, taking full lunch breaks and making sure that consistently working late isn’t praised. Their conclusion was that presenteeism doesn’t create better quality work, it makes employees stressed and exhausted, often leading to them needing to take time off later. The irony is that flexible working is not only good for workers happiness, it results in higher productivity.

Social aspects of work

Shift workers or those who work from home can have limited contact with colleagues and others, which can present challenges of social isolation at or even out with work if anti-social shift patterns are involved. Even for traditional office workers, it is easy to get swept up in the frenetic pace of a typical office environment and with telephone and emails largely negating the need for face to face encounters with colleagues, even a large office can be a lonely or socially isolating place at times.

Strategies for work

Why are Google employees famously so happy?  Whilst the free lunch for every Google employee might not be in the budget for many companies, the most effective strategies Google has are its simplest: encouraging workers to move around and communicate with each other in person more (e.g. by using standing desks and scooters) and encouraging staff to eat more healthily in the office by providing healthy snacks such as fruit. Healthier workers are happier and more productive.

These relatively simple (and cost effective) strategies as employed by Google are backed up by a leading academic from Kansas University. In his book, The Depression Cure, Dr Ilardi suggests that one reason for the growth in mental illness in recent years is due to the fact that we live in a world where we have increased social connectedness via technology and decreased personal contact with other people on a day to day basis. He argues that the brain mistakenly interprets depression as an infection and sends messages to the sufferer to “crawl into a hole and wait for it all to go away”. This is the opposite of what a depressed person actually needs: more human contact. His lifestyle based cure for depression advocates six elements; social connectedness, meaningful activity to avoid ruminating on negative thoughts, regular exercise, a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids, daily exposure to sunlight and good quality sleep.  Whilst employees are responsible for their own diet, sleep and exercise habits, for many people struggling with mental illness, work can provide the meaningful activity and social connectedness that they need. So in some instances, taking time off work for reasons of mental illness may be counterproductive.

So, what can you do today?

  1. In General. Help to end the stigma by starting a conversation about mental health. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Raise awareness by tweeting or posting about Mental Health today.
  2. For yourself. Practice self-care. Eat well, sleep well, exercise, get outside, stay socially connected and stay busy doing something you enjoy. When you are at work, make an effort to go and speak to colleagues rather than always calling or emailing. If you are struggling with mental illness, be patient with yourself and know that it is ok not to be ok and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters, whether that is with your doctor, counsellor, friend, colleague, family member or employer.
  3. For others. Check up on somebody today. Be mindful of your colleagues and others and let them know that you are there if they want to talk. It could be a lifesaving act.  There is a well-known saying, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
  4. As an employer. Employers can give information and advice at workshops and create a working culture where people are valued by the contribution they make, rather than how long they sit at their desk. Flexible working should be provided where possible and employees should be encouraged to leave on time. Depending on the size of the organisation and the budget, initiatives such as healthy snacks, lunchtime classes such as yoga or pilates or even pedometer step challenges amongst staff can be established to promote wellbeing.

If you are feeling depressed or suicidal and don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, you can phone the Samaritans on 116 123.

Blog by Shona Macnaughton

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