Making changes for the better

Recent Acas research sheds light on how changes to our working environment can have an impact on our mental health. Rachel Pinto, Senior Research Officer at Acas, examines what employers can do to improve the mental health and well-being of their staff, especially during times of change.

There are very few certainties in life, but, in the public sector, there is one thing we can be certain of: work is changing. With the government’s digital agenda and the prevalence of flexible working, new ways of working are becoming the norm. Running in parallel to this, there is an increasing number of cases of poor mental health at work.

Time to Change estimates that a staggering one in six individuals will be affected by poor mental health at some point during their working life, and bearing in mind that people are living and working for longer, the reality is that most of us will be affected by poor mental health while at work.

One of the factors that can contribute to this is the workplace. After all, we spend a significant part of our lives working, and in some cases, worrying about work in our personal time. Therefore, it’s important to promote a positive culture of mental health in the workplace and support employees when times are tough.

New research from Acas and Essex Business School focuses specifically on drawing learning and insights from employers who have had to manage staff with mental health issues. While the research shows that there is no set response or one-size-fits-all approach in terms of dealing with mental health issues, there are four key areas for employers to consider and act upon:

Communicating well during times of change
Often when big changes are made in organisations, it’s for improved efficiency or financial gain. While it is important to make business improvements, we all need to understand how things, like new ways of working, restructuring programmes, and cost efficiency drives, can all breed uncertainty and anxiety for staff. Therefore, giving staff the opportunity to voice their opinions on changes and responding to concerns before it escalates is a useful starting point.

It’s also important not to underestimate the impact of day-to-day challenges such as staff shortages and the introduction of new technologies, as explained by one of the line managers interviewed in the research:

“The centre manager's about to go off for 12 months maternity leave, so we've got another centre manager coming in. The equipment is changing all the time, such as the dual monitors so dealing with change is huge and that can really feed into mental health, because it creates uncertainty.”

As well as recognising the need to communicate well with staff, attention should be paid to how stresses at work are likely to affect staff in different ways, especially if they have a history of mental health problems or complicated situations, as described by an employee from the research:

“The waves of losing your job and having job insecurity does bring interpersonal problems and difficulties in families. It can’t not interfere across the board. From my own experience when my family support wobbled then I wobbled twice as much at work because of the ongoing stress at work that was affecting family life.”

The importance of approachable line managers
Employees interviewed as part of the research repeatedly emphasised the importance of being able to communicate with line managers about their situations. This is significant, as individuals are more likely to disclose mental health conditions and seek extra support if they have a strong relationship with their manager in the first place.

From the manager’s perspective too, a good working relationship can help to spot the signs when something is wrong and make reasonable adjustments where possible. This can help minimise disruption to work plans and enable staff to work at the best of their ability. One line manager described the importance of approachable managers:

“I think it's fair to say, from my own experience as an advisor as well, I've been poorly managed in the past, and that's drastically affected my mental health, especially with my anxiety.”

The research also highlighted the importance of changing line manager mindsets to be supportive of a positive approach to the management of mental health at work. It also recognised any learning and development needs managers may have. An HR manager from the research:

“Never assume just because somebody has been promoted to a manager role that they are people people. Because lots of the time people have been promoted because they are good at their job. So some line managers might need a little bit more help.”

Appropriate support for staff returning to work
For staff returning to work after a long period of absence, it can feel like a daunting experience; therefore, return to work policies need to be tailored to the individual and flexible where possible.

Employees interviewed as part of the research who had mental health issues and had taken a related leave of absence suggested an array of enablers that helped them to return to work. These included: being given access and time to see health professionals, such as their own GPs and counsellors; Employee Assistance Programmes to signpost them in the right direction; not being pressurised to return to work early; being given time to become re-orientated back to the workplace; and reasonable adjustments being made, for example changes to hours of work and avoiding sources of stress such as long commutes.

Similarly, just because a member of staff has returned to work after experiencing poor mental health, it doesn’t mean that they do not need continuing support. As explained by one of the employees interviewed, who returned to work after a second absence from work:

“The first time I became aware there was a proper issue was the morning I woke up and I decided I had to go and see a doctor because I couldn’t cope with going back to work. But if I look back in the prior six to 12 months before that there were lots of signs that things were not right and I just ignored the signs or didn’t recognise the signs.”

Using employer outreach or trainers with lived experience
There is a wealth of support and information for all managers, regardless of your level of experience. The organisations used as part of the study had often drawn on multiple sources of guidance to help manage staff undergoing mental health difficulties.

Using employer outreach activity was another useful way of developing skills and enabled trainers with lived experience of mental health conditions to share their insights on how managers can support their staff.

One line manager says:

“I’ve never seen anybody with anxiety like that in my life. When people say they have anxiety, I just think they are just really nervous about a situation or they’re not comfortable in that situation and they just kind of want to get away from there. I’ve never seen it to the extent that they’d work themselves up that much, that they’re having to go to the toilet and be sick, because the anxiety levels had got that high. So that’s the first time I had ever seen anxiety in that form.”

An employer outreach provider added:

“We've had a few members of staff at various organisations who have actually stayed behind to talk to us and say, you know what, I think I'm struggling with this, or, I'm going through this problem, how do I address it? So it's obviously touching a nerve and there's a need for it.”

Change is clearly something that all organisations need to go through at some point, but how employers manage, communicate and respond to these changes can have a big bearing on employee well-being at work, and, in turn, affect how productive your organisation is.

Acas has produced guidance, research and case studies on mental health at work to raise awareness and share learning to help employers manage changes for the better.

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