Why Employee Mental Health Is Not the New “Bad Back”

Why do we tend to treat employee mental health differently from physical health? Maybe it's because we can't see the problem.

employee-mental-health person clutching head

Don’t panic. Neither incense, nor bean bags, nor whale song feature in this article. I am going to tell you an employee mental health story though, about Dave. He’s not real, but I’ll bet that his story resonates with many of you.

Picture the scene: “Fictitious Dave” has come back to work after being signed off with stress—an all-too-common work-related condition that impacts business massively (more detail about that later). Meanwhile, Dave is meeting his line manager, who has some boxes to tick.

“Welcome back to work, Dave (tick). In this return-to-work interview, I’m going to tick these boxes as evidence that we care. I want to find out how you’re doing (tick) to make you feel reassured (tick) and welcomed back to the family (tick). I know that even though you were so stressed out by the workload and having to deal with angry and often aggressive customers that it made you ill, your absence has had an impact on everyone else’s workload (tick), who have had to do your job while you’ve been off laying on the couch. If we are all done here, a customer wants to make a complaint on the shop floor. And remember, my door is always open (BIGGER TICK).”

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Welcome back, Dave.

Saying It Doesn’t Make It So

Just saying you care doesn’t mean you do. Stress, anxiety, and depression accounted for 49 percent of all working days lost due to ill health in 2017. Among the main reasons for this were workload, lack of support, and violence (threats or aggression).

Being shouted at, threatened, or abused is not a part of anyone’s job—it’s a risk. And if it’s a risk that staff are likely to encounter due to the nature of their roles, then reasonably practicable steps must be taken to reduce, if not eliminate, that risk.

We become anxious when feelings of safety or self-esteem drop. It’s linked to our fight-flight response, designed to keep us safe. It stands to reason, therefore, that if we can create a safe, supportive working environment, stress and anxiety will remain low.

Looking after employee well-being and personal safety is so much more than just the right thing to do. It makes sound business sense. In a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) survey, 50 percent of respondents said that stress made them less patient with customers. Being impatient with customers is not good for business.

That said, we know that to be fully effective, managers need to be given the tools to identify potential issues and support staff well-being. It’s essential.

Despite 80 percent of Institute of Directors (IoD) members believing that good workplace and employee mental health is very important in business, only 14 percent of them have a formal mental-health policy in place. Fewer than one in five offer line-management training.

Want a Tangible Return? Then Provide the Tools

Here’s an eye-opener: if you position well-being at the heart of the business rather than waiting to see if there’s a budget surplus for it at the end of the year, you can expect a return. A tangible return. The Thriving at Work review of mental ill health in the workplace reported that for every £1 spent on manager training, a return of around £10 could be expected.

Some words of wisdom from Sir Richard Branson: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

No, It’s Never Just Part of the Job

Why do we tend to treat employee mental health differently from physical health? Maybe it’s because we can’t “see” mental ill health? It’s less tangible.

Before a bricklayer can climb a ladder, they need a fall-arrest harness and a course in working at height. Before you sit at your desk, you need to do the “sitting at a desk properly” e-learning course—measure how far your nose is from the screen and adjust the lumbar support cushions.

But what about equally likely threats to our mental well-being? Take a shop assistant, for example, dealing with antisocial behavior, external theft, dissatisfied or angry customers, and so on. OK, we can do the “difficult customers package” on the Intranet, but in my experience, a critical element is missing—the individual. One size fits one.

Isn’t This All Rather Subjective?

Goodness me, yes. And that’s the point and possibly part of the problem. Our window on the world is unique to each of us, as is our ability to cope with the “normal” stresses of daily life. What upsets me may not upset you. It’s a matter of perception and perhaps circumstance. Some wisdom from Sir Monty Python now: “We’re all individuals!”

The way we think and feel has a huge impact on our lives, our behavior, our performance, and the decisions we make. It’s known that stress can lead us to make poor decisions. Spare a thought, then, for the retail associate facing yet another angry customer.

Stress leads to absence, staff turnover, poor performance, disengaged employees, and damage to an organization’s reputation. It can drive people to serious mental illness and, at its worst, even suicide.

The Twilight Zone: Middle Ground

There’s a place that exists between happy staff and absent staff. It’s known as presenteeism: when the worker is there but unable to contribute fully. Look out for it. It’s often another sign of poor or failing mental health. Without training, it can be difficult to spot.

In the absence of training, managers often resort to the comfort of policy and procedure, such as “attendance management,” “poor performance,” and disciplinary proceedings. Can you see how that might resolve things? No, neither can I. Spare another thought, then, for the shop assistant who faced an angry customer, lost patience, articulated a poor response to Mr. Angry, and is now being reprimanded.

Stress as a Business Destabilizer

Earlier, I said we’d revisit stress, anxiety, and depression as debilitating conditions that impact business. Here are some striking measures of that impact:

  • Mental ill health costs the UK GDP a staggering £99 billion (~ $130 billion) per year, according to Thriving at Work: A Review of Mental Health and Employers 2017.
  • Although virtually half (49 percent) of all working days lost are as a result of stress, anxiety, and depression (12.5 million days, up 7 percent in 2017), physical injuries in the workplace fell to their lowest levels since 2001-2002.

Lead from the Top on the Employee Mental Health Issue

A corporate mission statement proclaiming the company values its people is meaningless if those people don’t feel safe and supported. Whether caused by work or not, poor employee mental health will still ultimately affect the employer.

“Well-being” is so much more than whether your employer has a cycle-to-work scheme or “Fruity Fridays.” Don’t get me wrong—I think both initiatives are great as part of a holistic approach that puts well-being at the center of what an organization does.

A great place to start is with managers, directors (yes, this goes right up to board level), and business owners understanding that stress comes from a great many sources. Their people are not simply employees. They are fathers, wives, dance instructors, carers, devoted friends, and more, mental health condition or not.

This article was originally published in LPM Europe in 2018 and was updated March 14, 2019.

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