Mental health at work needs to tackle workplace causes

Workplace mental health is not just a Covid thing and many of the causes are linked to workload, pay and insecurity.

Mental Health


There has been a lot of talk about mental health at work over the last year and many employers are paying attention to it. A big focus has been on engagement, communication and checking in on people who are working remotely. The whole pandemic uncertainty and anxiety has affected people’s mental health, the worries about jobs, the worries about health, the isolation from friends and families, the constant chopping and changing of the guidance, the homeschooling while working…

This has been an incredibly anxious time and many of these are things that are to some extent outside the control of employers, although they can certainly help to signpost to support or communicate regularly.


But there are other things that contribute to mental ill health which are more within employers’ control. A survey out this week shows presenteeism – working while sick – and leaveism – using annual leave to work have been on the rise during the pandemic. The main reason is ‘unmanageable workloads’.

In part that is a result of ‘the all hands on deck’ emergency situation we have been facing as businesses have struggled to survive and organisations have grappled with ever-changing guidance and demand for support. But this is just an exaggeration of patterns that we have seen emerging over the last few years.

Concern about the ‘always on’ culture and about people working on holiday or not taking time off sick has been around for some time. Of course, it is easier to work while sick if you don’t have to commute, but if you are ill you shouldn’t be writing reports and handling tricky emails. You should be resting and recuperating. In the long term you will feel more able to bounce back and cope with crisis situations.

Adding, but never subtracting

I’m old enough to remember when people had administrative assistants – I was one myself. Now we are all adminstrators on top of our other jobs. Technology has enabled this to some extent, but it still means extra work and no allowance has been made in the working day for all of that.

The world of work has changed profoundly in the last decades. Everything is expected yesterday. Emails pile up as soon as you turn your back and then there are more emails chasing the earlier emails. In journalism, it is not just enough to write a news story to an evening deadline once a day; you have to write four or five stories to a constant minute by minute deadline. You don’t just go out and do your story in one medium. You have to keep your eyes glued to social media in case you miss something and you have to post everything on an ever-growing number of sites, being acutely aware of the words you use. No account is taken of this in terms of your hours or the way the intensity of how we work today affects our wellbeing.

Workload review

What is needed is regular reviews of workload because constantly adding stuff and never taking anything away is the road to burnout. Expectations of what is possible need to be scaled back to what is realistic and sustainable. If that means less gets done, maybe less means better quality. It’s certainly worth asking the question.

Of course, in some places workload issues are exacerbated by staff shortages which, in the case of the NHS or teaching or childcare, require much better strategic leadership.

Yet for many employers mental health seems to be limited to campaigns to talk about mental health issues more openly and remove stigma. That’s all very well, but it only gets you so far. A better approach would be to deal with those causes which are the result of working conditions, such as overwork or, another big one, financial issues, often related to low pay, poor progression prospects and job insecurity.

This is surely where employers need to focus their attention if they want to tackle mental health at work effectively.

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