Why is stress in the workplace on the rise?
A new report into the mental health of corporate employees discovered some worrying trends, writes Professor Brendan Kelly
Fewer than one in five employees in corporate Ireland are extremely satisfied with their lives. More than one in five is extremely or very stressed and there is a sense that pressures have increased in recent years. Almost one in three reports more stress than two years ago.
These are just some of the headline findings from the Vhi Health Insights Report on mental health in the corporate workplace. Published last week, Mind Matters: Resilience in the Workplace is the first in a planned series of in-depth research reports about the health of Ireland's corporate employees.
Mental health was chosen as the first theme because it is a growing concern for all employees, particularly women, those under 34 years of age, and people working in the tech sector.
But issues relating to mental health affect everyone. One person in four will develop a mental illness at some point in life. Everyone has family and friends who are affected in some way, or appear at risk of developing anxiety, depression or other conditions.
For many, work has an important role to play. While work can contribute to stress and other problems, it can also have a very positive impact on well-being, providing security, belonging and achievement.
Rewarding work has unique potential to boost self-esteem and enhance both mental and physical health.
The Vhi Health Insights Report sheds new and important light on this area in corporate Ireland, and highlights both the challenges and opportunities for mental health in the Irish workplace.
What did the study find?
To perform the study, Vhi and market researchers B&A surveyed some 392 corporate employees, conducted in-depth interviews with 10 experts in the field, and held two in-depth technology sector staff mini-group interviews.
The findings are, by turns, worrying and reassuring. There are three main worries here: the level of stress among employees, negative trends over time, and the stigma associated with stress and mental ill health.
First, it is deeply concerning that more than a third of corporate employees report that the stress in their current job has caused them to consider changing jobs or careers, and that one in five have missed work in the past year because of stress, anxiety or depression.
This level of stress, at home or in work, is clearly problematic and is not part of the normal cut and thrust of living. Stress is certainly an essential part of life but there comes a point when stress reaches problematic levels. And the level of stress reported in the Vhi survey is far, far too high.
Second, many people see these problems getting worse over recent years. More than three-quarters (78pc) of corporate employees believe that mental health issues are of increasing concern, based on their own experience and that of colleagues.
A majority (67pc) feel they need to take more care of their mental health. Clearly, this is an area of growing concern for employees and employers alike.
Third, taking positive steps to improve mental health is not always simple. Some 50pc of people surveyed feel they must disguise the stress they feel at work in order to maintain their career prospects. This is an exceptionally disappointing finding.
The past few years have seen increased public awareness of stress, anxiety and depression. Mental health also features commonly in popular media and on the internet, and it was hoped that this greater public discussion would diminish stigma. Clearly, while some progress has been made, there is still much more to be done.
Despite the problems identified in the survey, there are also positive indicators that things are changing. A majority of employees surveyed (77pc) have some form of flexible workplace arrangements in place and 70pc avail of at least one of these arrangements.
The most popular option is the facility to start or leave work early or late, which is availed of by 39pc of those surveyed. The next most popular arrangements are working from home (30pc) and flexitime (28pc). These measures work: employees who have a high satisfaction with their work-life balance report the highest use of these special workplace arrangements. We need more of these.
People are also increasingly willing to seek help and, predictably, turn to friends and family first, rather than workplace managers. Of all employees surveyed, 15pc are not satisfied with their management of work demands and 52pc have sought some form of help or advice, most commonly from friends and family (28pc).
Wellness policies at work also have a clear role to play, although the survey suggests that one size does not fit all. For example, although showers and lockers (separate to an on-site gym) are available to 52pc of employees, only 22pc make use of them. Clearly, wellness arrangements and programmes need to be both based on sound principles and tailored to meet employees' particular needs.
Moving towards solutions
On the positive side, the Vhi survey shows that corporate employees have a keen awareness of stress and mental health in the workplace and are eager for solutions. This is good. The survey also provides a useful evidence-base for new workplace services and revisions of existing ones in order to boost wellbeing.
First, wellness programmes are clearly valued by employees and are generally effective but need fine-tuning and expansion in order to meet employee's evolving needs.
Depression and anxiety are now the most common conditions among employees (23pc) followed by other anxiety related conditions (17pc).
As a result, pragmatic wellness programmes need to be provided for all employees, and more focussed counselling and psychological care are required for those in particular need.
Second, wellness programmes are not enough. Job satisfaction is also critical to well-being. Flexible hours, flexitime and working from home are highly valued by employees and should, therefore, be continued, revised and/or expanded.
Third, physical health and diet matter greatly. The Vhi survey found that while 35pc of employees are extremely dissatisfied with their mental health, even greater proportions are extremely dissatisfied with their physical health (41pc) and diet (50pc).
Physical health and mental health are not separate: they are so closely linked as to be indivisible. Facilitating better physical health and diet in the workplace can make an enormous contribution to mental health too.
Fourth, healthcare matters a great deal. Although only 45pc of employees report the provision of private medical insurance by employers, 36pc avail of this service.
Despite being only the fourth most widely available workplace service, private medical insurance is the second most widely used, coming in just after canteens (58pc) and well ahead of on-site gyms (11pc).
Irish corporate employees are commonly stressed, increasingly anxious, and notably dissatisfied with their working lives. But they are also actively looking for positive solutions from family, friends and - to a lesser extent - employers. This presents a real opportunity for employers to better meet the needs of their employees.
Work can make a uniquely positive contribution to mental health.
The survey demonstrates that existing wellness programmes do work but should be fine-tuned and developed; workplace arrangements like flexi-time and working from home should be more user-friendly and expanded; facilitating better diet and physical health will improve mental health; and services such as good canteens and healthcare are highly valued by employees.
Employees are also ready to try new things in search of wellness.
Mindfulness was the most popular potential solution proposed to employees, with two thirds willing to take a mindfulness course.
Digital support was another popular option, probably as a prelude to one-to-one psychological support for those in particular need.
Overall, the survey indicates both a need for greater psychological support in the corporate workplace and a willingness to accept it.
Sustained commitment is needed because solutions take time, but genuine honesty and engagement will be rewarded.
As Martin Rogan, Chief Executive Officer of Mental Health Ireland comments: "Some of the things that are really important for mental health - there isn't a quick fix, there isn't an app for that.
"It's spending time, being available, being honest."
Brendan Kelly is a Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and Consultant Psychiatrist at Tallaght Hospital. He is speaking about mental health and illness at the Galway International Arts Festival on July 21; see giaf.ie
Health & Living