How businesses can destigmatise mental health in the workplace

A happy community is a productive community, but policies to protect workers’ mental health don’t go far enough, says Yashmi Pujara, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cactus Communications, drawing on the findings of a global survey of 13,000

Mental health problems are still widely stigmatised in business. In July 2021, a McKinsey report indicated that while 80% of full-time employees believed a mental health anti-stigma or awareness campaign would be useful, only 23% of businesses are reported to have implemented a campaign in their workplace. Efforts by some employers to destigmatise these conversations are paving the way for more open discussions and policy changes, but the movement is slow to take hold. 

A combination of working more than 48 hours per week and a lack of effective government policies around work-life integration has resulted in 11% of UK workers feeling overwhelmed and unhappy, according to a report from the Institute for Employment Studies. In the UK, there are policies for parental leave and flexible working that attempt to improve work-life integration for workers, but these are left to the discretion of businesses and they can deny these requests if they believe it affects the business adversely.  

Furthermore, people having to work remotely because of Covid-19 has meant the lines between work-life and home-life have become blurred. On average, home working has led to a two and a half hour increase in the average working day and employees are suffering from more fatigue, stress and burnouts than ever before.

In a survey conducted by CACTUS with 13,000 researchers across the globe, only 8% of the respondents felt their organisation had effective policies around work-life integration. Let’s look at why employees are feeling this way and how businesses can redress the balance.

Overwhelmed and underappreciated

CACTUS’ first survey was conducted before the pandemic, in October 2019. Yet over one third of responding researchers felt overwhelmed by their work situation and said this was negatively impacting their mental health. The problem will only have worsened since. 65% have since stated that they were under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants and complete projects, without the office social interactions to dispel tension. 31% of participants reported that they worked more than 50 hours a week from home and 13% reported they work past 60 hours per week. 

Since 2020, most businesses have adopted some form of work-from-home culture, so these statistics will be echoed across the entire working population. In a similar mental health survey conducted by Business In The Community, 51% of 3,614 UK workers thought their mental health problems had caused increased pressure from their employers.

Furthermore, businesses across the world are experiencing record-breaking numbers of resignations — approximately 400,000 in three months in the UK alone — during a period being dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’. This is because workers are dissatisfied with their employment. While mental health will not be the only reason for people quitting their jobs, it must be viewed as a contributing factor.

The expectation that everyone needs to be constantly working, no matter their profession, is incredibly damaging. The response from our own workforce is clear, culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration.

Dealing with discrimination

Discrimination, harassment and bullying all contribute to declining mental health at work. In CACTUS’ follow-up survey taken during the pandemic, 23% of researchers wanted to see more measures to promote equality and prevent discrimination. 45% of respondents identifying as homosexual and 42% of females reported being bullied, harassed or discriminated against at work. A significant number of respondents described instances of sexual harassment that weren’t dealt with adequately, if at all.

It’s unsurprising that 48% of respondents who felt a need for tighter policies on discrimination and bias also reported feeling overwhelmed at work. To protect the mental health of all employees, business managers must structure plans to better police bullying and harassment. It may also be beneficial for institutions to create confidential spaces for mental health support on and off-site. If a company has a workforce that is still predominantly working from home, it’s crucial that concerns about inequality are dealt with, without the worker feeling disconnected or isolated.

Job security and mental health

Higher salaries and job security were common requests from surveyed researchers. Demands for better wages have been echoed across the public sector, where 48% of 12,000 workers said they had experienced mental ill health. Several comments made in response to the CACTUS survey implied there are correlations between finance-related stress and overall poor mental health. 

In CACTUS’ follow-up survey, 38% of respondents disagreed to feeling satisfied with their financial situation, and instead felt like they had worked past their contracted hours without being compensated for it. 

In academia in particular, workers lack stability of employment — the jobs are where the funding is. This is similar in many businesses that offer zero-hour contracts where possible. It’s not as easy as asking businesses to pay employees more because financially it may not be feasible. However, managers can ensure staff aren’t working vastly over their contracted hours and that they are taking all their allotted annual leave. Job security can be created by reducing fixed-term contracts, and this will prevent anxiety around long-term financial stability. Above all, decision-makers need to be aware of those business areas lacking financial and wellbeing support so that appropriate changes can be made.

Communication is key

Workers can feel disconnected from their colleagues when working remotely. The follow-up CACTUS survey found that 17% of researchers asked for improved communication between colleagues, collaborative working and the fostering of a more social environment. Ultimately, these things will improve cohesion in the workplace and have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. 

Of course, physical health is equally as important. In some countries, restrictions on people gathering in an office are still in place. Therefore, business leaders have a difficult task in implementing policies that can build a social environment. However, social spaces can be provided for smaller groups, where possible, and virtually, which will ultimately lead to better relationships, happier employees, and a successful business.

It’s important for employers to realise that pressure and exploitation don’t produce the best business outcomes. By valuing people holistically, our working population will be a happier one and the quality of results will be significantly better too. The simple reality is that working culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration. After all, a happy community is a productive community.

Yashmi Pujara is Chief Human Resources Officer at the technology company, Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Over 15 years, Yashmi has been instrumental in shaping at CACTUS’ unique culture and has played an important role in conceptualising and implementing its people policies, earning industry recognition and awards in the process.

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