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Home » Employee Wellbeing » A culture of trust creates better mental health in the workplace

Kate Field

Global Head, Health, Safety and Wellbeing, BSI

Work-related causes of mental ill health are on the rise. Yet if employers implement best practice, their employees will be significantly healthier and happier.

According to the latest data from the Health and Safety Executive, work-related mental ill health is on the rise. In 2018/19, 602,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety — but by 2020/21 that number had risen to 822,000. That’s a jump of 38%.

Yet even before the pandemic, multiple factors were conspiring to increase mental ill-health in the workplace, says Kate Field, Global Head, Health, Safety and Wellbeing, at business standards and improvement company, BSI.

“Heavy workloads, tight deadlines and the pressure and responsibility to ‘deliver’ all play a part in increasing the stress levels of employees,” notes Field. “Lack of managerial support can be another factor, as is organisational change. Humans don’t much like change — and change within a work context can be very unsettling and creates a stress response. And, of course, the pandemic was a time of huge change and disruption for everyone.”

Of course, everyone suffers stress from time to time. It’s a natural part of our inbuilt mechanism to keep us safe from harm; so, in normal circumstances, it can be a positive thing. The trouble is, when stress is prolonged, the harm to our wellbeing can become more serious.

“Over a period of time, the stress response starts to affect our bodies, both physically and mentally,” says Field. “Physically, that can cause increased heart rate, upset stomachs and lack of sleep. But it also starts to affect our cognitive abilities, such as our memory and our decision-making.”

Work-related mental ill-health also harms businesses. “When people are away from work because of mental ill-health, this can result in a decline of productivity and service delivery issues, which can have an impact on a business’s reputation,” notes Field. “There are also cost implications if temporary workers are needed to be drafted in as a backfill. If it also increases the workloads of other employees, it can add to their stress levels and become a negative cycle.”

Humans don’t much like change — and change within a work context can be very unsettling and creates a stress response.

Developing an authentic culture of trust

To help organisations safeguard their employees’ physical and psychological health, Field has authored a best practice framework for BSI called Prioritising People Model©. This sets out 16 elements required to effectively prioritise people, including providing a decent, safe and healthy work environment, creating an engaged, committed and productive workforce.

In turn, this creates an authentic culture of trust, which is essential for a healthy and harmonious work environment. “People aren’t silly,” says Field. “If they think their leadership isn’t serious about this issue then mistrust is created within an organisation — which is when staff begin to look for employment elsewhere. It is why trust is so vital to an organisation’s long-term health.”

By focussing on employees’ needs and expectations — and implementing an occupational health and safety management system to manage physical health and safety, plus mental and cognitive risks — it’s possible to drive lasting cultural change within an organisation.

“If a business adopts this in the right way, its workforce can be happy and engaged and both physically and mentally healthy, which is good for every single individual member of staff,” says Field. “The benefit for the organisation, meanwhile, is that it becomes more productive and innovative. So, if you do the best thing for your people, you end up doing the best thing for your business.”

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