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Mental health policies for employees don’t go far enough

Employees are the beating heart of any business, yet an estimated 14.7 per cent of people experience mental health problems in the workplace. These problems persisted before the pandemic and will continue until worker-centric policies are put in place to protect staff. Here Yashmi Pujara, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cactus Communications (CACTUS), a technology company accelerating scientific advancement, explores how the findings of the world’s largest, most diverse survey on researcher mental health can help business leaders implement a more nurturing culture.  

Mental health problems are still widely stigmatised in businesses. In July 2021, a McKinsey report highlighted that while 80 per cent of full-time employees believed a mental health anti-stigma or awareness campaign would be useful, only 23 per cent of businesses are reported to have implemented a campaign in their workplace. Efforts by some employers to destigmatise these conversations are paving the way for more open discussions and policy changes. However, the movement is slow to take hold. 

A combination of working over 48 hours per week and a lack of effective government policies around work-life integration has resulted in one in five employees calling in sick because of workplace stress, according to the UK mental health charity, Mind. In the UK, there are policies for parental leave and flexible working that attempt to improve work-life integration for workers, but these are left to the discretion of businesses who can deny requests if it affects business. 

Furthermore, people having to work remotely because of COVID-19 has meant that the lines between work-life and home-life have become blurred. On average, people are working for more than two additional hours per day when working from home and as a result are suffering from more fatigue, stress, and burnouts than ever before.

In a survey conducted by CACTUS with 13,000 researchers across the globe, only eight per cent of the participants strongly felt that their organisation had effective policies around work-life integration. Let’s look at why researchers are feeling this way and how employers can redress the balance.

Overwhelmed and underappreciated

CACTUS’ survey was rolled out in October 2019. The survey results showed that over one-third of the participants reported feeling overwhelmed by their work situation. 65 per cent of participants stated that they were under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants, and complete projects. 31 per cent reported that they worked over 50 hours a week and 13 per cent reported they work past 60 hours per week. 

Since 2020, most businesses have adopted some form of work-from-home culture, so these statistics might be echoed across the entire working population. In a similar mental health survey conducted by Business In The Community, 51 per cent of 3,614 UK workers thought their mental health problems were caused by increased pressure from their employers.

Furthermore, businesses across the world are experiencing a record-breaking number of resignations — approximately 400,000 in three months in the UK — during a period being dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’. This is because workers are dissatisfied with their employment. While mental health may not be the only reason for people quitting their jobs, it must be viewed as a contributing factor.

The expectation that everyone needs to be constantly working, no matter their profession, is incredibly damaging. The response from our own workforce is clear; work culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration.

Dealing with discrimination

Discrimination, harassment, and bullying all contribute to declining mental health at work. In CACTUS’ survey, 37 per cent of researchers reported experiencing some form of bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. 45 per cent of participants identifying as homosexual and 42 per cent of female participants reported being bullied, harassed, or discriminated against at work. Several participants described instances of sexual harassment that weren’t dealt with adequately, if at all. Those who had experienced such hostile behaviour in the workplace were more likely to report feeling overwhelmed by their work situation. 

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It’s unsurprising that 48 per cent of participants who felt a need for tighter policies on discrimination and bullying also reported feeling frequently overwhelmed at work. To protect the mental health of all employees, business managers must structure plans to better police bullying and harassment. If a company has a workforce still predominantly working from home, it’s crucial that concerns about inequality are dealt with, without the worker feeling disconnected or isolated.

Job security and mental health

Higher salaries and job security were common requests from surveyed researchers. Demands for better wages have been echoed across the public sector, where 48 per cent of 12,000 workers said they had experienced poor mental health. Additionally in hospitality, where furlough schemes and redundancies were common, two thirds of workers had experienced mental health problems. Several open-ended comments received via CACTUS’ survey implied that there are correlations between financial stress and overall poor mental health for those working in the research space. 

In the survey, 38 per cent of participants disagreed to feeling satisfied with their financial situation, some reporting in open-ended comments that they worked past their contracted hours without being compensated for it. 

Particularly in academia, workers lack stability of employment — the jobs are where the funding is. This is similar in many businesses that offer zero-hour contracts where possible. 

It’s not as easy as asking businesses to pay employees more because it may not be financially feasible. However, managers can ensure staff aren’t working vastly over their contracted hours and that they are taking all their allotted annual leave. Job security can be created by reducing fixed-term contracts, which will prevent anxiety around long-term financial stability.

Above all, decision makers need to be aware of those business areas lacking financial and wellbeing support so that appropriate changes can be made.

Communication is key

Workers can feel disconnected from their colleagues when working remotely. A common theme in the open-ended comments received via CACTUS’ survey was a need for improved workplace communication, collaborative work, and a more social environment. Ultimately, these things will improve cohesion in the workplace and have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. 

In some countries, restrictions on people gathering in an office are still in place. Therefore, business leaders have the difficult task of implementing policies to foster a social environment. However, social spaces can be provided for smaller groups where possible, and virtually, which will ultimately lead to better relationships, happier employees, and successful businesses.

It’s important for employers to realise that pressure and exploitation don’t produce the best business outcomes. Valuing people holistically will make our working population a happier one and the quality of results will be significantly better too. The simple reality is that work culture needs to change to promote a healthy work-life integration. After all, a happy community is a productive community.

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