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Professor Fehmidah Munir argues that too many employers are reactive when it comes to mental health and focus on the individual rather than on root causes of stress at work.
After a busy year involving a rise in customers, a stock market debut and all the pressures that come with a global pandemic, the dating app Bumble recently announced that all staff would be given a week off work. The company’s offices closed, with all 700 employees on paid leave to deal with what one executive called “our collective burnout”.
It was widely seen as a positive gesture which will have hopefully given staff the time and space to recover, mentally and physically, from a stressful period. They may also feel supported and cared for, which in turn should increase their feelings of job satisfaction and self worth.
That said, taken as a standalone initiative, it is a temporary fix, and staff could well be returning to the same volume of work after their time off.
But Bumble’s founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, might have plans to address this. The company already offers a wide range of initiatives to support wellbeing. These include things like attractive work spaces and services (such as free manicures), but also more important perks such as allowing staff to choose their own hours, as long as the work gets done.
Whether the company-wide week off reaps benefits or not, the idea will have sounded appealing to millions of workers elsewhere who would no doubt be delighted with such an offer.
In the UK, it is estimated that as many as 1.6 million people suffer from work-related ill health – over half of them with stress, depression or anxiety. Around 55% of all sick leave days are due to work-related mental health problems, primarily caused by pressures including tight deadlines, poor working relationships lack of manager support and workplace harassment.
To better understand how employers can address mental health problems, I’ve been following some closed groups on social media where most of the conversation is about work. Within the exchanges, there is a noticeable and growing frustration that workplaces tend to have a predominantly reactive approach to dealing with the stress and burnout caused by work pressures.
This could mean anything from yoga classes to mindfulness and resilience training, and while these programmes can indeed be useful for supporting general mental wellbeing, they only go so far.
For there appears to be a genuine appetite in these groups for an approach which prevents and manages mental health issues before medical treatment and long-term sick leave are actually required.
A more systematic and comprehensive approach would seek to eliminate the original problem (such as too great a work load), provide support to those who are suffering (perhaps a workshop on coping skills), and also treat and rehabilitate those already on long-term leave.
It is also important to target all of these intervention categories at different levels, both in and out of the workplace. In effect, this means taking into account the individual worker, the group (colleagues), the manager or team leader, and the organisation itself.
Very few workplaces take such a full approach. Instead many opt for strategies aimed at making the individual worker feel better, rather than targeting the working conditions that are at the root of the problem. They also tend to fail to support workers in a way that empowers them to make changes to their own working lives for a better work-life balance.
This is because many organisations hesitate to improve or change working conditions as they believe it will have a negative impact on their productivity. But evidence suggests that this is not the case
With mental health issues on the rise, it is time for employers to put into practice the evidence on what actually works in the long term to reduce mental health problems at work – for everyone’s benefit, including their own.