Two in five Londoners are stressed. What can employers do about it?

We speak to Bupa’s corporate director Patrick Watt for answers

Did you know that 44% of those working in London are currently going through a period of stress, with 13% saying that they regularly feel close to breaking point due to stress?

The latest figures, which come from research by private healthcare provider Bupa show that stress is leading to further mental health problems such as depression. 45% of stressed people in London go on to suffer from further mental illnesses.

As we told you in December last year, stress costs businesses an incredible £460m a day (Read: Stress in the City: Is London cracking under pressure?)

Workplace stress is becoming an increasingly well-documented phenomenon in the modern business world. But though high-profile cases or studies showing the effects of stress are now widely covered by the press, there remains anxiety and hesitancy around reporting or tackling stress within organisations.

The result is that mental health issues like stress are now better publicised than they have been in the past but serious challenges remain for organisations and individuals in recognising problems and acting to prevent, mitigate and treat conditions like stress.

Bupa says that it’s vital that businesses implement initiatives to break down the culture of silence in order to address the problem of mental health in the workplace. caught up with Bupa corporate director Patrick Watt to find out where progress is being made and how businesses need to act to secure the health of their workforce.

Q.What are the key risks and dangers of stress?

Everyone recognises that stress in itself is just a part of life and that there are various drivers of stress. Some are work-based, but issues arise when that stress becomes unmanageable and builds up over a period of time. It can lead to quite serious consequences with people becoming depressed or anxious.

The good news story is that people can avoid getting a mental health issue if they can manage their stress at a relatively safe level.

So stress is not like lots of other conditions that are harder to prevent such as things you might be predisposed towards as a result of family history or your genetics. Stress is something we can all take positive action to avoid.  

Q. What are the key obstacles to preventing those things from happening?

The first thing is that people have to recognise that stress exists. This can be a kind of denial or at an organisational level, a culture of silence that exists around stress. It’s just downright unhelpful.

If you fail to recognise, or are in absolute denial, then that’s probably the biggest danger that we’re facing.

Q. Do you think there’s been any change in the reporting of stress or is it still a taboo subject?

From a society perspective, I think we have seen significant changes to people’s perceptions around mental health. So now there are television programmes about these issues and in real life we have politicians and footballers and people in the arts standing up and talking about it, so I think that as a society we have moved quite a considerable way in a relatively short space of time.

But where there has been less progress has been in the business world. The business world has been much less comfortable in speaking openly about this as an issue, and the irony is that business has most to gain from getting this right.

We’re all coming out of the recession, and whether you’re a small business or a large business, if you have a workforce that’s in a positive state of mind then all the evidence exists that you’ll be a more productive and more successful business.

Q. Are companies trying to buy a solution to the problem rather than taking a more holistic approach?

Yes, you can’t simply buy yourself out of this problem, and running a resilience programme is not the panacea to this. It can’t be the way businesses seek to address this long term.

Q. What is a resilience programme?

This is when organisations support employees with resilience, and don’t get me wrong it can be a great thing, but it’s not the silver bullet. So if you think you can address mental health in the workplace by having a resilience week or a resilience programme then I think you fail to recognise the deep-rooted nature of this as a problem.

Q. What can businesses do to prevent these problems from occurring?

It is for companies and businesses to recognise that stress and mental health problems are prevalent in the workforce. I think that what businesses need to be much better at is firstly acknowledging that, and secondly providing services to support people with a mental illness to receive help and support.

Businesses are very aware of when someone has a muscular-skeletal injury such as a bad back or another medical condition. They know the best way to get that person back to full fitness is to offer support and help. You don’t expect someone with a diagnosed back problem for it to just get better on its own. Businesses would look to give that person time off, to access physiotherapy, and to access help to recover. From Bupa’s perspective that’s exactly what we’re saying about mental illness.

But taking time off on its own is not an active way to manage a medical condition. There needs to be an intervention.

There is a misperception that providing wellness or health support to employees is something that only a big business can do. But I would strongly argue that the impact of an individual not being well is greater felt in a small organisation than a larger one.

SMEs are really interested in this because they’re at the sharp end of the impact.

Q. Presenteeism, that’s a related problem too isn’t it?

Yeah, if we turn the example back on ourselves, then we know that we do not do our best pieces of work when we’re stressed. And whatever that definition of stress means, it is highly unlikely that we’ll do our best when we’re stressed. So sometimes you kind of distance yourself from mental health because you think that people think you’re skiving or not working hard enough. But actually stress clouds our judgement, it impairs our thinking, we don’t relate well to our colleagues, we know intuitively that it doesn’t make good business sense. And that’s how we’re encouraging businesses to think about it. We’re not encouraging businesses to think of it as a problem that creates an absence.

Q. What are Bupa doing to improve the situation?

Well, first of all, Bupa is a large employer. We employ 32,000 people in the UK, many of whom work in care homes. People who are critical to our business, every day many of them are working in very challenging conditions. So we have an internal responsibility to employees. We recognise the benefits of a healthy workforce.

We’ve actually launched our own service for our people called Healthy Minds to help access support at the earliest possible opportunity, and this is something we’re now looking to roll out to the market.

Traditionally, the way private healthcare used to manage mental health was quite disparate. So as an employer you might have private healthcare, and you might have an employee assistance programme (EAP).

One of the challenges that we recognised was that if you were receiving help and support through the EAP, and it became clear that you actually needed a different level of treatment, then you’d have to go back to your GP to get re-referred to your private healthcare plan to receive the treatment. So it wasn’t particularly joined up.

The whole point of Healthy Minds is that you don’t have to worry as someone who’s stressed, about which service you go to. We will be there to help guide and support.

Thanks for your time.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Anonymous

    Concerning stats. Do you have a link to the study?

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