By Christie Day
We don’t have to cast our minds back too far to a time when mental health was a topic broached with extreme caution in the workplace. Employees feared negative consequences and would frequently conceal reasons for absence with fictitious physical illnesses in order to protect their role and reputation. Thankfully, many employers and employees have moved on, and while there’s still some way to go towards a full culture of openness, businesses now acknowledge that addressing mental health issues has to be a priority.
Mental health has a huge impact on workplace productivity. According to the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) almost 27 million working days were lost in 2017-18 due to work-related ill health - with stress, depression and anxiety accounting for the majority of those days. The HSE estimated the total costs of ill health to be a mammoth £9.7 billion. A figure that underlines the UK economy pays a high price if businesses don’t preserve the wellbeing of their workers.
The government statistics only account for people who are ‘employed’ by companies. We also have to factor in the boom in self-employed freelancers and SME owners who are just as likely to encounter mental health issues during their career. More than five and a half million people in the UK are self-employed based on the latest ONS estimates. Cloud accounting company FreeAgent surveyed hundreds of freelancers and SME owners and found that 53% of small-business owners had suffered mental health challenges such as ‘burnout from overworking’.
The burning question then, is what can both employers and employees do to maximise wellbeing at work and look after their mental health? While it is a joint responsibility between businesses and their workers, individuals can take personal steps to help safeguard their health. According to Psychologies Magazine, the key media affiliate partner at our WIB Expo event, there are several simple measures that people can follow when they’re feeling under stress and overworked.
While we have to recognise the complexities and personal nature of many mental health illnesses, the focus here is on general wellbeing and ensuring employees are looking after themselves. Keeping healthy as possible should be a combination of physical and mental activity. Psychologies suggest going back to basics, from introducing walking into the daily work commute, to switching off screens an hour before bedtime and practising regular breathing techniques such as square and box breathing.
Many businesses are also working hard to support mental health in the workplace and tackle the associated stigma. Companies can put procedures in place to protect employees, such as having defined support pathways to ensure staff know how and where to access support, to introducing wellbeing policies that could include flexible working, mental health sickness and absence provision. Organisations could also look at how their work environment influences the wellbeing of employees and, if space allows, bring in quiet areas or ‘recharge’ spaces that allow for downtime.
Of course, for big corporate companies with dedicated HR departments this process may be viable. But what about the legion of small businesses owners and freelancers who are susceptible to various work pressures yet struggle to find the time to take a day off? This was recognised by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), who recently launched a campaign aimed at promoting good mental health among small businesses and the self-employed. The campaign, ‘It’s okay to talk about mental health’, was introduced last autumn to provide the UK’s 5.7 million small business community with information and advice to “help them gain a better understanding of mental health and how it can affect their employees.”
One of the key themes at WIB Expo is offering women the opportunity, support and advice needed to start their own business, whether it is help with an existing company idea or meeting franchisors looking for prospective business owners. We will also be running a ‘Wellbeing in the Workplace’ feature to underline the importance of keeping healthy in the world of business. Many women recognise all of the positive aspects of running their own business, achieving a better work/life balance, reaching their career ambitions and enjoying the flexibility of being their own boss. If business owners don’t safeguard their mental health it could be counter-intuitive for the company, so investing time in wellbeing has to be up there on the to do list.
As a freelancer or small business owner, the path to wellbeing takes preparation and organisation. For those who don’t have a team to run the business in their absence, plans could be drawn up well in advance of holiday time. There are options to temporarily outsource work, for example, using a professional business answering service. Or if work can’t wait setting holiday work boundaries could be feasible, perhaps spending an hour each day catching up on urgent matters. There are also technological solutions that could help business owners automate tasks, from using technology to schedule social media posts or automatic email responders.
Every company, whatever size, has a greater chance of success if it prioritises wellbeing. Making simple changes in the way we approach work won’t solve the global mental health challenge but it will make for happier, more productive employees. A healthy profit margin will help a company survive. The wellbeing of a workforce will make sure it thrives.