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23 Aug 2021
by Louise Aston

What if your job was good for you? Tackling the systemic root causes of poor mental health at work

It has taken a pandemic to finally bring mental health to the fore. Building back responsibly means making managing mental health a priority.

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The spine of Business in the Community’s wellbeing campaign is the Mental Health at Work Commitment – a public declaration of putting mental health at the heart of post-pandemic recovery which we urge all employers to make. It is underpinned by six standards with practical actions that any organisation can follow to improve and support the mental health of their people.  

Before the pandemic, standard two of the Commitment; To proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes, was considered the most challenging standard to implement. However, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to tackle the systemic root causes of poor mental health at work. Our new evidence-based, action-orientated report What if your job was good for you? provides practical guidance on tackling the systemic root causes of poor mental health at work.

An opportunity to transform working practices

The pandemic has accelerated the demand for change and created opportunities to make work better. Although we have seen rising levels of mental ill-health, encouragingly, we have also seen progress in the way mental health is being prioritised. The last 18 months has demonstrated that change can be achieved and achieved quickly. Changes to job design, such as the move to home and hybrid working, have created opportunities for a more flexible model. We believe we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform traditional working practices, reimagine ways of working and create jobs that enable people to thrive.

Currently, work is part of the issue, with 41% of employees experiencing poor mental health, due to work, in the last year. The leading causes are excessive pressure, workload and long hours. This figure would be seen as utterly unacceptable if compared to physical injury. Why then do we tolerate negative impact on mental health from work? There should be no dichotomy between physical and mental health and safety. Employees should feel safe to speak up and be listened to if they have their own mental health issue or spot a mental health risk or hazard that could affect others, without fear of negative repercussions.

Sadly, it doesn’t always pay to speak up, with 12% of employees who disclosed a mental health issue subsequently experiencing negative consequences such as, being sacked, forced out, demoted against their wishes, passed over for a promotion or subject to disciplinary proceedings. And 30% of employees suffer in silence, telling no one that they are experiencing poor mental health.

Tackling the causes of poor work-related mental health

Good job design must be part of the solution and now is the time for employers to tackle the causes of poor work-related mental health. With the importance of listening to employee voices, mental health and safety needs to be established on a parity with physical health and safety, so everyone can speak up without fear of negative consequences.

Working from home and hybrid working have created opportunities for taking a more inclusive and individual approach that enables people to co-create their own ‘good jobs’. The report sets out ways of working that enable better work (including a collaborative, individual focused approach, and a focus on relationships and open dialogue), and the organisational values (empathy and compassion, inclusivity and equity, trust, appreciation and authenticity) that form the foundations of good work.

Those organisations that thrive will be those that put people first as they emerge from the pandemic. It is about putting ‘people first’ further, to embrace an inclusive approach where employees are listened to and can speak up without fear of reprisal, where employees are viewed as customers and given the opportunity to say no; and where their feedback is considered at the highest level in the organisation. This extends to employees being given the opportunity to co-create their own jobs, supported by managers and aligned with organisational practices and policies.

Enabling better work

The report includes a framework that sets out the ways of working that enable better work, and the organisational values that form the foundations of good work. It includes two employer calls to action:

  • Achieve parity between the management of physical and mental health and safety with an open and accountable culture.
  • Enable employees to co-create their own ‘good jobs’ supported by managers and aligned with organisational practices and policies (one size does not fit all).

The report is not an end itself but a vehicle for engaging business leaders, driving action and sharing knowledge as we transition into a new era of ways of working that has the potential to transform mental health and wellbeing.

The author is Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community.

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