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A happier workplace – Mental Health Awareness Week 2019

Paul Scully Paul Scully

There is a plenty of evidence that wellbeing in the workplace can help drive business success. And yet stress and anxiety still account for millions of lost working days each year. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week we arranged a challenging discussion about better ways of working.

Paul Scully, who leads our tax team in the North West, was joined by Dawn Moore, HR director of Morgan Sindall Construction and Infrastructure, which employs almost 4,000 people across the UK. The discussion also featured Professor Marc Jones from Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Psychology. Marc has spent many years looking at the relationship between stress, health, and wellbeing.

The debate began by looking at root causes. It’s often said that the pace of working life has sped up but the panel did not believe that this a decisive factor in mental health.

“I don’t think the workplace is more demanding than it was a generation ago,” said Paul. “If you go back to the 1940’s when Dale Carnegie was writing the best seller How To Stop Worrying And Start Living or if you watch episodes of the television drama Mad Men there are references to people having nervous breakdowns. History, art and literature are awash with Tchaikovsky’s and Van Gogh’s spending time in sanatoriums for their ‘nerves’. Now we just have a different and more precise vocabulary to talk about depression and anxiety and other related issues.

“What has changed in the last generation is the speed of response in the workplace. Mobile devices are a mixed blessing because they encourage more instantaneous responses and mean that people are contactable at any time of day or night. But they do enable more flexible working from home or from other locations which is beneficial for mental health and wellbeing.”

Dawn from Morgan Sindall also commented on the mixed blessing of technology in terms of work-life balance. “There’s a constant challenge, whatever sector you are in, of businesses wanting to do more with less. Technology often enables you to do a lot more but just in slightly different ways. I also think that people’s lives outside of work have changed. I see it when we are recruiting. Candidates are after that work-life balance. It’s not always easy to get that right in a 24/7 world where technology makes us available. The challenge for organisations is how to find that balance.”

Marc felt there is still much to do around the stigma surrounding mental health issues. “I think it’s changing in pockets of the economy and we are seeing progress at different speeds across different environments. It’s interesting how in some macho working cultures you can see some change around.” Marc cited the example of professional football, where he has done some consultancy, and the example set by the England squad during last summer’s World Cup, where England player Danny Rose spoke about the periods of depression he’s experienced. “There has been a change in sport in the last few years,” reflected Marc. “Certainly football clubs are more aware of the support that they can offer players. Five or ten years ago they wouldn’t had these issues on the table.”

Dawn agreed stigma remains an issue. “I think progress is very mixed. Construction, for example, is still a macho, male-dominated industry. The statistics have told a story for a long time – there is a high level of suicide. There’s a lot of research about why it happens. That stigma around talking about the problems is starting to change. The industry has done a lot of work over the last four years to show its support publicly. Great organisations like The Lighthouse Charity, which covers the whole of the construction industry, encourages people to talk about their mental health problems in various forms and provides support anonymously. It’s a great step forward. There is also a lot of work outside of what they are doing and across the construction industry around support and awareness for line managers so they know how to spot these problems.”

Paul felt there was a significant change within the firm when some partners began to share their own experiences through social media and on the intranet about the difficulties they have faced, including periods of depression and anxiety. “It has made it easier for colleagues to be open about their experiences – but there is still a stigma attached to mental health and that’s what we are working hard to break down,” he said. “Similarly, across the wider economy there is still a lot of work to do. It is a question of leadership and what people in senior public positions do. I think the work that Princes Harry and William have done around mental health has really helped moved the dial on this issue.”

Paul felt there was a seismic change in terms of attitudes within the firm when partners began to share their own experiences in social media and on the company’s intranet about difficulties they have faced – periods of depression and anxiety. “That changed the whole tone of the conversation,” he said. “They did that because our firm has made massive efforts to be an understanding and open employer. It’s really helped to remove the stigma for us and made it easier for staff to be open about their experiences. But across the wider economy there is still a lot of work to do. It is a question of leadership and what people in senior public positions do. I think the work that Princes Harry and William have done around mental health has really helped moved the dial on this issue.”

The panel acknowledged that most of UK Plc is engaged in a talent battle – attracting and retaining people with the right skills to help their businesses grow. In this there’s a lot of talk about appealing to millennials – who want flexible working, good smart phones and more besides. They reflected the mental health dimension of what millennials want.

Paul challenged the perception of millennials being molly-coddled. He pointed out that it’s become the norm for people to have such negative opinions of the generation that follows it. “Flexible working is expected now and is a cultural shift across the whole economy, mainly driven by the empowerment of women and shared parental responsibilities – it’s therefore not fair to lay such perceptions at the doors of millennials,” he said.

Similarly, Dawn recalled how there were three things that people asked for during the early days of her HR career: salary and benefits; company car; and training and development. “Now, candidates are more likely to ask about flexibility, regardless of their age or generation. They ask this because they’re aware of the importance of mental health and having a work/life balance.”

The issue of social media and the constant comparison to others also plays a role in mental health. Marc discussed how millennials, in particular, are most at risk of burn-out and stress because they are continuously comparing themselves upwards and looking at others’ successes.

In terms of being happy at work and choosing the right career, Dawn highlighted that knowing your own strengths and how to play to them is vital if you want to find happiness at work.

Paul likened choosing a workplace to buying a house in that “the minute you walk in, you know it’s right or wrong for you.” Always look for challenges and the opportunity to grow, he added.

Marc built on their comments and highlighted the following tips for staying happy at work: “Build connections with the people you work with; maintain your connections outside of work; take breaks away from work; and, importantly, ensure you’re getting quality sleep. Our performance is massively impacted by how rested we are when we go to work.”