A hidden crisis?

Written by: Nicola Tann Posted: 21/10/2013

workplace stressIs work-related stress leading an increasing number of people to develop serious mental health problems, or even go as far as taking their own lives? Nicola Tann investigates the last workplace taboo

After taking four weeks off work for stress, headteacher Helen Mann was found hanged at her Worcestershire primary school last November. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide and said Mrs Mann “felt under pressure in her new role… and feared failure. When this got too much she took her own life.”

Over the last few years, a number of prominent corporations have seen executive staff signed off with stress too – perhaps most notably Antonio Horta-Osorio, the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group. These cases may be coaxing the issue of work-related suicide and stress further into the public arena, but many feel this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it's only by shining a light on this uncomfortable subject that we can begin to tackle the problem. And tackle the problem we must.

The numbers are stark. A survey commissioned by the charity Mind earlier this year shows work is the biggest cause of stress in people's lives, and that workplace stress has resulted in seven per cent of respondents – rising to 10 per cent among 18- to 24-year-olds – having suicidal thoughts, and 18 per cent developing anxiety. The latest Labour Force Survey cites stress as accounting for 40 per cent of all work-related illnesses.

Reliable figures on rates of suicide are notoriously hard to track, as stigma, religion and cultural attitudes can see suicides hidden among records for other causes of death – including traffic accidents and drowning. It is, therefore, even harder to definitively quantify the number of suicides directly caused by work issues.

Despite this, the Samaritans report that more people die of suicide around the world each year than by war and murder combined, and that between 10 and 14 per cent of the general population will have suicidal thoughts at some point in their life. Their most recent study finds that between 2010 and 2011 there was a significant increase in the UK suicide rate: the rate for males in the UK is its highest since 2002, and the female rate has also significantly increased since 2007.

Under pressure
So, what's going on to cause these frankly grim figures? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them'. “Most people can take a burst of pressure, but it's when there's no respite it causes real problems,” says Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “Evidence suggests prolonged exposure to stress is linked to depression and anxiety.”

Many are feeling the pressure, and the recession is playing a part. The spike in UK suicides in 2011 – to an average of 11.6 per 100,000 of the population – was followed last year by the launch of an updated suicide prevention strategy from the Government, according to which: ‘there are new challenges to be addressed… at a time when we have economic pressures on the general population'.

“The recession's had an effect,” says Boyd Bennie, Director of the Jersey branch of Samaritans. “In the last two years we've had far more calls about money problems, debt, redundancy and unemployment. Our 2012 survey in association with YouGov showed that 49 per cent of all our calls are about money and debt.”

Emer O'Neill, Chief Executive of the charity Depression Alliance, agrees: “These days, with fear of redundancy, job loss and not meeting targets, there's more people coming to us that haven't used professional help before. They're here because of a stressful work environment.”

There's a compounding problem, though – the taboo that suicide and mental health problems still hold. “People worry that revealing a mental health issue will be seen as a sign of weakness,” explains Tom Pollard, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at Mind, whose research backs this up. Of the 22 per cent of people in work and diagnosed with a mental health problem, less than half have told their boss. Also, 20 per cent have taken time off with stress, but a massive 90 per cent of those cited a different reason.

Geoff McDonald, Global Vice President of HR, Marketing, Communications and Sustainability at Unilever, has suffered with work-related depression (see box below), and he agrees this is part of the problem. “When I was ill, the company was so supportive, but still I would hear things like: ‘You don't have to tell anyone what's wrong – we can just say you're having tests'. We've got to break that.”

O'Neill agrees. “Depression Alliance provides training for employers, and generally we're invited in when there's an increase in people coming forward or there's been an incident,” she says. “Certainly in a very stressful environment – say in the City – where people may be extremely worried about career opportunities and such, these are the places that have talked to us about suicides. There is a higher chance of suicide in these environments.”

Changing culture
This culture of fear provides the dreaded double-whammy – people who are already ill will struggle on without seeking support, which is the worst thing both for them and the business. Many still turn up to work but are less productive, and without support the problem is unlikely to resolve itself.

“At Royal Mail and BT, if an employee takes time off citing a mental health problem, they are referred to occupational health on the first day of absence,” explains CIPD's Willmott. “This is because these problems are generally either long-term or recurrent, and the sooner you intervene, the better the chance of preventing the problem from escalating.”

Employers have a legal responsibility to protect the health of their employees, which means that if staff become ill as a result of work, employers can be held liable. “Case law suggests that where employers have been put on notice – say an employee says to their manager, ‘Look, I'm under stress' or ‘I'm working crazy hours' – and not taken action, they could be liable,” explains Willmott.

The question, of course, is where do we go from here? Well, there's plenty we can do, and the good news is that it's not just good for staff, but for business too. “Certainly organisations that have done a lot around staff wellbeing have seen a substantial reduction in sickness absence, so that's a direct consequence right there, but there's a broader impact too,” explains Pollard at Mind.

“When staff feel supported, there's an impact on productivity. In a recent survey, three in five people said if their boss were to take action on supporting the wellbeing of staff, they'd feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work. This isn't just about being nice and doing the right moral thing – it makes good business sense to take this stuff seriously.”

Unilever's McDonald agrees, although he thinks while having services in place in important, there's more to be done. “It's about the culture and acceptance at the top,” he asserts. “Employees need to see their bosses don't view mental health problems as a sign of weakness. Businesses can say, ‘Yeah, we've got occupational health, mindfulness programmes, and CBT'. Well, that's great. But if people don't feel confident to put up their hand, none of those tools get used.”

Having the right tools and policies in place is undeniably important, and there are organisations that provide training and advice and consultancy on this. But it seems breaking the taboo around stress and suicide and encouraging people to come forward if they're having trouble could be the key to tackling this problem.

“Our message is ‘depression happens',” says O'Neill at Depression Alliance. “The impact of a suicide on a business is absolutely devastating. Don't wait for a crisis before you backtrack and wonder, ‘Why did we not set this up before?'”

Nicola Tann is businesslife.co's Sub Editor and a freelance writer
If you're concerned about your mental health, contact your GP, or you can call The Samaritans on 08457 909090 any time – they're open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

My own story

Geoff McDonald is Global Vice President of Human Resources, Marketing, Communications and Sustainability at Unilever.

“About four years ago I was involved in a major and stressful work project. When I look back I can see I had symptoms – lost appetite, no energy, that kind of thing – but I didn't think anything of it. We finished on a Friday, and at midnight on Saturday I woke up with a panic attack. This had never happened to me before, so I didn't know what was going on – I thought I was going to die.

“The next morning I was so anxious I felt almost paralysed. I couldn't get out of bed and I didn't know what was wrong. I was diagnosed with depression and booked off work for about six weeks, and it took another two months working shorter hours after that to recover fully. I had suicidal thoughts, and I completely lost confidence in myself. I didn't even want to be seen outside the house – I thought people would think: ‘What's wrong with him? Why isn't he at work?'

“During it all, everyone at Unilever was so supportive – they gave me everything I needed. I also had support from someone who had been depressed before, which was very powerful. It really gave me hope – if he'd got better then maybe I could too. If it hadn't been for him I could easily have been a statistic of some guy jumping in front of a train or something awful. Gradually I got better with medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and the support of my wife, friends and colleagues. For me, it's about learning how to manage it, and treating it like any other illness.”

The six causes of stress

The HSE has identified six factors that can lead to work-related stress if they're not managed properly. Find the full guide for carrying out a risk assessment at www.hse.gov.uk

Demands: this includes workload, work patterns and the work environment.

Control: how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

Support: encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.

Relationships: this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and deal with unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying.

Role: do people understand their role within the organisation? Does the organisation ensure employees don't have conflicting roles?

Change: how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

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