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By Tara O’Sullivan, CMO at Skillsoft


Burnout is now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in its International Classification of Diseases; the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The World Health Organisation is now developing evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace, and it’s not a moment too soon.

Stress and poor mental health costs UK businesses between £33 billion and £42 billion a year through reduced productivity, high staff turnover and sickness absence—equivalent to £1,205-£1,560 for every employee in the UK workforce. This highlights why all employers need to act on mental health in the workplace as a top business priority, but it should also be as much of an employee wellbeing priority.

In recent years, public debate has done much to stimulate open and honest conversations relating to the mental health difficulties faced by many of us. Everyone across the organisation should feel able to talk about stress and mental health, yet when it comes to the workplace, few employees are comfortable speaking to a manager about their stress levels or mental health.


Tara O’Sullivan

The impact on health

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one-in-four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point, with anxiety and depression the top problems reported. All too often these are a reaction to work-related issues.

Indeed, according to the HSE, work related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 57% of the total number of lost working days in 2017/18. Meanwhile, in 2018 a YouGov survey on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation and Mental Health First Aid England made the surprising discovery that millennials are the demographic most likely to feel under pressure in the workplace, with 34% saying stress impacts on their productivity, and 28% saying their organisation’s culture means they’re expected to power through stress.


Supporting employees

Job insecurity, heavy workloads and pressure to perform are all key contributory factors that can result in workers experiencing high levels of stress. Other top causes reported by workers include concerns about individual or team performance, organisational changes, unrealistic or tight deadlines, customer satisfaction levels, and office politics.

However, research conducted by Canada Life Group Insurance in 2018 found that while 9.7 million UK workers say their productivity is being damaged by stress and anxiety, many employer organisations are failing to provide the support employees struggling with issues at work need. As a result, enterprise productivity is suffering.

But there are practical steps employers can take to improve wellbeing in the workplace. Two of the primary focus areas include:


1          A work life balance

Last year, 40% of all UK employees reported taking just half their annual leave. Meanwhile, 23% of those who did go on holiday regularly checked emails, while 15% continued to work out of fear of getting behind or missing targets.

Encouraging workers to take all their allocated annual leave is vital, so they don’t risk burn out further down the line. Managers need to have candid conversations with staff to make sure everyone understands it’s important to take time out and prioritise planned downtime. Whether that’s taking the odd day off to spend time with family, indulging in a ‘me’ day, or a longer and fully rejuvenating break.

Identifying which members of staff consistently fail to take up their full leave allocation can be the start of staging an intervention or discussion that gets to the bottom of what’s inhibiting them from taking time out. If these members of staff are in management or leadership positions, addressing this is vital. Whether they intend to or not, they are setting a tone that could be followed by other employees looking to them for guidance on the organisation’s culture.


2          Ensuring flexibility

Our increasingly busy and ‘always-on’ lives mean we’re all constantly juggling life and work pressures and that’s when the benefits of flexible working can come to the fore. Research shows that flexible working options can make workers feel more valued and more trusted. As a result, their wellbeing increases, as does their productivity – it’s a win-win.

Flexible working can help create a more healthy work-life balance that makes it possible to retain the best staff and reduce absenteeism and work-related stress. Whether that’s flexible working hours, the freedom to work from home or the ability to organise their own working week, small changes can make a big difference.

Now is the time to raise the profile of workplace wellbeing and kick off programmes that will help and support employees. With employee wellbeing increasingly being viewed as a strategic priority by organisations across the UK, equipping workers with the resources and awareness they need to nurture their own mental health will benefit everyone.


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