Building mental resilience in the workplace

Toby Harris

The results of our survey

In the UK, 70 million days are lost every year through poor mental health, and stress is a factor in between 50% and 60% of all lost working days. This represents a huge cost, both in terms of human distress and damage to the economy. One study puts the annual cost of depression to the American economy at $44 billion. The epidemic may explain the mystery of why, in the UK, output per worker is falling even whilst employment recovers. As Miles Davis once sang, these days: ‘Blue can be the livin’ dues / We’re all a’paying’.

To find out more, Saffron Interactive conducted an anonymous survey of over 70 senior managers in a range of FTSE250 organisations, local government bodies and smaller consultancies.  Specific job functions included global training managers, L&D managers, operations managers, HR business partners and L&D business partners.

We asked how stress and related mental health issues affected their organisations, whether they were measuring its impact and what measures were in place to build resilience. Whilst only 46% of respondent organisations were directly measuring its impact on performance, we found a growing recognition of the problem and aspirations for change. We found that learning and HR professionals, along with senior management, feel they can and should play a better role in boosting mental resilience through a diverse range of initiatives.

When pressure boils over

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, work-related stress is experienced when ‘the demands of the work environment exceed the workers’ ability to cope with (or control) them’. Work-related stress is often caused by excessive quantitative demands, isolation from co-workers, a lack of control, job insecurity, role ambiguity and bullying.

There’s no doubt that years of economic difficulties and rapid technological change have exacerbated many of those causes. As one our respondents told us: ‘More and more focus on reducing our cost base, while continually bringing innovation to our customers, means we have fewer people to do the same if not more work. This leads to rising stress levels.’

But it’s also true that change, competition and positive pressure are an important part of anyone’s working life. A certain level of stress is healthy. John Binns, a Deloitte partner, trustee of the charity Mind, and director of an independent consultancy, fit4success, points out that in any organisation which is ‘aspirational, commercial, and relatively competitive, there is stress by definition.’ The problems occur when certain behaviours push this pressure ‘into an area where it becomes bad stress and damages the performance of the individual or the company.’

When stress does become ‘bad stress’ it leads to the kind of serious mental health issues, such as an episode of clinical depression, which will affect 1 in 4 of us over the course of our working lives. If handled improperly, one of these crises will impact heavily on co-workers and the bottom line. In the UK, each new case of stress leads to an average of 29 days off work.

And a lack of available strategies for personal resilience is often reflected in the inability of whole organisations to be resilient to the challenges of today’s world. Amongst a patch-work of government measures, the main legislation relating to stress in the workplace is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which ‘requires employers to provide a workplace that is safe and healthy and ensure employees do not suffer from illnesses caused by work-related stress’. If it can be proven that workplace stress has caused serious illness without sufficient safeguards in place, the legal consequences and costs can be as severe as those involving physical accidents.

Defining resilience

So what do we mean by ‘resilience’? A practitioner guide defines it as ‘the successful adaptation to life tasks in the face of social disadvantage or highly adverse conditions’ (Windle, 1999, p. 63). Resilience can be understood as a personal attribute, a set of systemic or environmental factors, or, more likely, as a dynamic combination of the two. Organisational resilience is similar, but encompasses the processes, culture and structures that govern the way in which resilient attributes are enabled or blocked.

Just like person, a resilient organisation ‘can uncover and adjust to continually changing risks, endure disruptions to its primary earnings drivers, and create advantages’ (Star et al, 2007, cited in Developing resilience: An evidence-based guide for practitioners, p.4). We can understand a resilience-building programme as a set of strategies to challenge individual and organisational behaviours. Those that impact on resilience at a personal level might include negative cognitive filters, a lack of ‘mindfulness’ and poor coping mechanisms. At an environmental level, there are taboos and managerial behaviours that often play a critical role in the outcome of a given episode of mental difficulty. Finally, organisational resilience involves adaptability, risk assessment strategies, and the ability to weather serious crises when they arrive.

So what did our survey show?

We confirmed the seriousness of the issue. 68% of our survey’s respondents affirmed that mental health issues such as stress and depression do cause problems in their workplaces:

Q. Do mental health issues such as stress and depression cause problems in your organisation?

chart_1 Overwhelmingly, respondents complained of high-cost impacts. Our survey confirmed that the main perceived effects of stress-related issues are on paid absence and productivity:

Q. How do problems with mental resilience most affect your organisation?

chart_2 Our survey also showed that the problem is exacerbated by poor management and a lack of resilience strategies. Representative complaints at the organisations worst affected were that mental difficulty is treated as a taboo or is ‘not something my organisation takes seriously enough’, that line managers ‘need to be better trained’ and even that the problem is denied by managers for legal reasons. 17% of respondents didn’t know of any support in place whatsoever.

However, where the problem was being addressed, we uncovered a variety of strategies: 42% said that a range of support services were available, against 26% of organisations which relied on a single method (such as workshops, a support team or resources). SMEs drew strength from their flexibility: ‘senior management are always willing to listen and try to accommodate requests such as working from home where possible.’

Respondents in the most advanced organisations outlined a culture of support backed up by a strong procedural framework. Often, respondents were reassured by a clear pathway to recovery for those affected, even if understanding was lacking: ‘Although some colleagues may not appreciate the intricacies of the condition, we have an excellent support process in place to guide the individual and their management towards a return to work and continued support.’ Promisingly, 75% of respondents indicated that there were concrete plans to increase support in the next year, with growth in every main methodology. Projected investment in e-learning or online courses was up by 150%.

Taking action

John Binns believes that, in order to take action, gaining senior management buy-in is vital. He points out that organisations ‘only really make real headway if senior management see the business case for it.’ Methods of measuring the bottom-line impact may vary, but as our research substantiates, a significant ROI can be realised from a wellbeing programme by reducing paid absences alone.

Since the launch of a mental resilience course created by Saffron Interactive in 2012, TfL has experienced an average reduction in sickness absence of one day per worker. Each day’s paid absence cost TfL £290 in wages and overheads. Add the numbers up and the result is a saving of £7.83 million per year across a workforce of 27,000.

So where should you start? Below, we outline a strategy template for HR and learning and development within a mid-to-large sized organisation seeking to boost resilience:

  • If none exists, set up a confidential advisory service that allows those suffering from stress to talk. This doesn’t always need to be staffed by professionals. Often, peers with experience of the issues are best. The ultimate aim of this support service should be to increase the speed at which employees can work through serious problems and return to work, and avoid unnecessary exits from the organisation.
  • Create a classroom or live online training programme for all senior managers to generate buy-in and an understanding of why the ways in which they manage stress are so important. It might be useful, as John suggests, to circumvent taboos by marketing it in terms of ‘fitness’ and overall wellbeing.
  • Workshops will never reach everyone. Invest in a bespoke e-learning course to generate awareness, introduce cognitive strategies and signpost the support in place for when something goes seriously wrong. Emphasise the point that 25% of us will be directly affected by mental illness at some point and all of us will be indirectly affected. Make the learning more behavioural by including true-story scenarios, video testimonies and tailored action plans.

One of the most important outcomes of better individual resilience is organisational resilience to change and crises. Just like people, resilient organisations enjoy lasting longevity and growth. The alternative, for all but the most colossal organisations, is usually extinction: in the past century the average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has fallen from 67 years to only 15 years. A strategy for resilience is therefore a part of a strategy for survival. And learning professionals should take a keen interest in that.

Toby Harris

Toby was the creative lead and platform product manager at Saffron Interactive. An open source enthusiast, he likes it best when he is adding value to the elearning community, developing new thinking about how people development programmes and platforms can drive business performance and prove ROI. Toby has extensive experience with learning management systems, a frenetic devotion to social media and consequently is able to keep a keen eye on best-practices in the ever-evolving world of elearning.

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