As the working environment is becoming ever more demanding, employees are looking for enhanced support in their workplaces. With increasingly challenging workloads, long hours and pressures to perform at consistently high levels, it is no surprise we are seeing people asking for better workplace mental health support, says Dr. Kylie Bennett, Mental Health Program Director at Dialogue, a Canadian health service.
“Global prevalence of common mental health concerns rose by 25% during COVID-19 and has not reduced as pandemic measures eased,” says Bennett. “As an increasing number of us are equipped with mobile phones, tablets and laptops, there is now a common expectation for everyone to be connected at all hours of the day, including weekends and holidays, which coupled with the demands of parenthood, ultimately leads to stress or burnout, in turn affecting employees' mental wellbeing. Many employees work additional hours beyond the normal “9-5” due to working ‘on the go’ through these digital devices.”
Working women and parents must address their healthcare concerns
Approximately 50% of employees experience at least one characteristic of burnout due to greater job demands, lack of social interaction and a blurring of boundaries between work and home life.
“While all burnout is worrying, it is even more so that women in full-time employment are almost twice as likely to have a common mental health problem as full-time employed men (19.8% versus 10.9%). We need to stop and ask ourselves why.
“Women, like men, can be at risk of developing mental health issues due to myriad stressful life events, such as relationship conflicts, financial difficulties or serious health problems within the family. In addition, multiple caregiver roles often fall to women, so that as well as paid work they are also juggling caring for others, including children and elderly parents,” says Bennett.
From pregnancy to the menopause, women experience hormonal changes that can impact mental health. Women are particularly at risk of developing depression or anxiety during pregnancy and in the months following birth, and challenges continue as new mothers return to work.
“It can be difficult to get back into the rhythm of work after maternity leave, and many feel as though their employers don’t understand the juggle of parenthood and working. Something that needs to be addressed to encourage talent back into the workforce.
“When home and work pressures combine, if resilience is lacking, or practical support and flexibility are not provided, this can lead to unnecessary stress, job dissatisfaction and the onset or worsening of mental health problems. Approximately 68% of women and 57% of men with mental health problems are parents. One of the biggest areas identified as causing additional stress and concern for parents is childcare, from the expense to simply being able to ensure drop off or pick up can be done outside working hours.
“Recently, the UK government announced in its budget that 30 hours of free childcare per week will be offered for one and two-year-olds (something that is already in place for three and four-year-olds) and will start from when a child is nine months old. This is a step in the right direction for easing one of the many financial pressures on parents across the country.”
As more mums take advantage of free childcare and return to work, it is important that employers are positioned to offer genuine support and flexibility in order to support and retain this talented group.
Workplace advice for women
Supporting the mental health of all employees makes good business sense. Mental illness costs UK employers approximately £56bn each year through absenteeism, presenteeism, workers compensation and staff turnover. One third of employees want more support for their mental health and well-being from their employers.
“To retain and attract new talent, now is a vital time for employers to invest in tools to support well-being, in combination with workplace policies which take into account challenges faced by employees, including women and mothers,” says Bennett. “One of the best things employers can do is to encourage a workplace free of stigma and to facilitate access to well-being resources and mental health services, for example through Employee Assistance Programmes or self-directed training such as digital Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for fast and accessible support. In addition, education and training about mental health, across the workforce, can equip employees to recognise and understand warning signs for mental health concerns, understand how to best assist co-workers, and crucially, means it is more likely employees will seek appropriate help for themselves when required.”
Importantly, those in leadership roles can have a huge impact on the success of workplace programmes and policies designed to support mental health.
Positive actions can include:
- Talking about the personal benefits of using well-being tools on a daily basis
- Acknowledging personal challenges such as caring responsibilities
- Visibly utilising flexible work arrangements - such as to accommodate childcare, when needed.
“It is also important to promote the understanding that employees may need workplace adjustments to support recovery or return to work after mental illness, just as they would do for physical illness.
“It is also key to promote personal well-being in and outside the workplace. There are many actions we can do to support our mental health and wellness on a daily basis, from eating healthily and exercising, to practising mindfulness or fostering social connections. The key to success is to incorporate activities which work into our daily routines to develop healthy habits, which can be supported through comprehensive workplace wellbeing strategies - helping people live healthier, more productive lives before they become unwell.”