Stop fixing people, address the work environment

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Progress and Limitations

It's truly fantastic and inspiring to witness the increasing number of businesses that now recognise the crucial role of mental health within their organisations. There has been a vast positive shift since 2017, when we first started addressing workplace mental health, in how the topic is discussed, with the matter now regularly reaching the boardroom.

However, despite this progress, data from the past few years suggest that things may not be getting better. For example, the 2022 Labour Force Survey (LFS) showed the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in 2021/22 was 914,000 and 17.0 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support.

This begs the question, are businesses so focused on implementing products to fix people that they miss the bigger picture of fixing the work environment to prevent the problems in the first place?

Businesses must realise that their responsibility goes beyond merely assisting their employees individually. Focusing solely on reactive remedial actions for employees might not be enough, and attention to the work environment is equally vital.

The Role of Employers in Mental Health

In the past, mental health problems were primarily addressed by other institutions and support systems, such as healthcare providers and family networks.

But as we move forward, part of the responsibility is shifting to employers. They are now expected to play a more active role in addressing mental health concerns among their employees. This shift in responsibility makes sense because employees spend a substantial percentage of their time at work, where the work environment can significantly influence their overall wellbeing.

Addressing Root Causes

The loss of productivity caused by stress and mental health problems, combined with moral and legal imperatives, has prompted many employers to take action. Many have taken steps such as introducing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), providing training sessions, and incorporating mindfulness apps.

Such initiatives are commendable; it's always good when a business wants to impact its employees positively. However, they may not fully address potential workplace causes of poor mental health.

Beyond Mental Health First Aid

While mental health first aid training can be valuable, it should not be the sole focus of an organisation's efforts.

For example, companies must also conduct stress risk assessments and proactively identify potential issues within their work environments. By acknowledging and addressing these issues, employers can create a healthier, more supportive workplace for their employees.

Employees as Stakeholders

Another thought-provoking aspect is the role of employees themselves. Should employees be more actively involved in shaping mental health initiatives? After all, they are the ones experiencing the work environment day in and day out. Their perspectives can provide invaluable insights into the challenges and improvement opportunities.

Companies that genuinely value their employees' mental health should listen to their voices and empower them to be part of the decision-making process regarding mental health initiatives.

The Danger of Ignoring the Work Environment

Recognising the importance of a supportive work environment is critical for employee wellbeing. No amount of mental health support will fully resolve the problems if the root causes lie within the workplace itself. Factors such as overwhelming workloads, toxic management, lack of work-life balance, and poor communication can significantly impact an employee's mental health.

Taking ownership of problems and responsibility for creating a healthy work environment is a pivotal first step employers should take to foster a positive atmosphere supporting employee mental health and wellbeing. By acknowledging the importance of this responsibility, employers demonstrate a commitment to prioritising the overall welfare of their workforce.

Final Thoughts

The progress made in recognising the importance of mental health within businesses is undeniable, yet the concerning data trends remind us that there's still work to be done. While initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes and mental health first aid training are commendable, they are only part of the solution. Businesses must take a proactive stance to foster employee mental health and wellbeing. This means addressing root causes within the workplace, listening to their employees' voices, and, most importantly, taking ownership of creating a healthy work environment. In doing so, businesses not only enhance the lives of their employees but also strengthen their own foundations for a brighter, more productive future. 

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