By Paul Wilson, Head of Mental Health Services
The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is Workplace Wellbeing. The workplace is an immensely important location. It is where we spend much of our adult lives and it is there that many of our universal human needs are met – material, emotional, psychological and even spiritual.
‘Good work is about much more than money. It adds meaning and purpose to our lives. It provides us with creative fulfilment, companionship, development opportunities, social status and increased self-esteem. Some of us even find love in the workplace – romantic and platonic.
A bad workplace
A workplace at its worst though can be a place of confusion, humiliation and considerable suffering. This can inflict such serious emotional, psychological and even physical damage upon a person that the loss of their work can be preferable to its continuation.
Even then the damage done to a person in the workplace can extend out into their family, their community and eventually into the health and social care system. The cost of this unfortunate ripple effect is colossal. Absence from work due to mental health problems – in lost productivity, benefits payments and increased cost to the NHS – has been estimated at up to £70 billion a year. The cost in avoidable human misery is harder to calculate, but it is an even greater concern.
All of this makes preventative practice a necessity. Prevention is an increasingly important word in the world of mental health and wellbeing – and it is a priority for the NHS. This is in recognition of the fact that waiting until people reach crisis point is neither humane nor particularly effective.
Early intervention – when psychological and emotional needs are at a lower level and more responsive to treatment – is clearly preferable and ultimately more cost-effective. However, the ideal is to prevent problems from arising in the first place.
What is the prescription for a happy and productive workplace?
How can this be done? What is the prescription for a happy and productive workplace? The starting point is the recognition that a workplace is a society – that is a group of people living together in an ordered community. Good societies are usually based upon sound principles – like equality, democracy and sustainability. Stark inequality, tyranny and short-termism do not make for good societies, nor for healthy and productive workplaces.
On a more practical level, employees of any organisation – public, private or voluntary sector – need certain forms of management support in order to perform at their best and prevent them from becoming demoralised and distressed:
- a reasonable and well-planned workload
- some control over the way they undertake their work
- the resources to do their job well
- positive working relationships
- a clear and meaningful role
- recognition for their efforts
- adequate financial reward and good communication from their manager
Vision is also vitally important. Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures. We cannot simply undertake tasks, we need to know why we are undertaking them – and the answer must make sense to us.
That is why any organisational leader worth their salt will create a compelling vision for the future of their company – one that inspires their employees and sustains them through times of adversity. Without a sincere and coherent vision there is only confusion, and confusion leads, inevitably, to failure – with severe consequences for all concerned.
It is only fair to recognise that some mental health problems pre-date employment and are merely exacerbated by poor management practices, whilst others are created by the stress and anxiety inducing practices of irresponsible employers. The latter can be avoided, and the former mitigated, by positive workplace wellbeing practices. They are good for the mind, body and spirit of employees – and for the bottom line of businesses.