Workplace exhaustion is a vicious cycle in the UK

Source: Financial Times, published on 16 October 2018

World Mental Health Day last week brought news of a flurry of employer initiatives to combat stress, anxiety and depression among their staff. Companies put out press releases about their free fruit and lunchtime pilates classes.

One employer said its staff were being encouraged to ask each other, “Are you OK?”, twice, in case colleagues were more forthcoming when asked a second time. It all seems well-meaning, if a little clumsy. But the subtext to the “corporate wellness” trend is troubling: employers have pulled off a remarkable feat of complacency, assuming they are the solution rather than part of the problem.

It is dangerous to generalise about mental health and the complex web of factors that affect it. But it is clear that one of the things that has a bearing on mental wellbeing is our work, where many of us spend half of our waking hours.

In Britain, the government funds a survey of UK workers every five years to keep track of how the quality of work is changing. The latest results show Britons are working harder than at any time in the past 25 years, to tighter deadlines and with less autonomy. A wealth of medical research shows a link between “high strain” jobs, which combine high pressure with a lack of control, and cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, stress and depression. Worryingly for the nation’s health, the survey suggests 20 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men were in high strain jobs last year, the highest percentage on record.

That would be a questionable price to pay for better economic growth, but the reality is worse: we are working harder for no gain at all. So-called work intensity is much higher in the UK than in France and Germany, but productivity is about a fifth lower and has barely improved for a decade. UK companies have underinvested in new technology relative to their peers, so staff might be having to work faster to make up for poor quality tools. Yet this becomes a vicious cycle. When companies run their employees into the ground, they become less willing to put in discretionary extra effort or suggest innovative ways of doing things better.

The costs of putting staff under too much strain ripple beyond the workplace into people’s homes and families. In the UK, teachers are the most exhausted of all, a situation that will surely have knock-on effects on the quality of education for the next generation.

In extremis, people who become unwell may stop work altogether and will need to be supported by taxpayers. In the past, claimants of disability benefits were most commonly older men who had picked up physical health problems from working in mining or manufacturing. Now, about one in three new claims for disability benefits in developed countries come from people with mental health problems, according to the OECD.

In the UK, half of those who start claiming incapacity benefits have a mental health problem (most commonly depression, stress or anxiety) as their main health condition, up from less than one-third in 2000. Not all of these people have been made unwell by their jobs, but work will have been a contributory factor for some.

Employers who want to support mental health among their staff should start by asking questions, not by providing superficial solutions. Overworking your employees and then suggesting they meditate is a little like breaking their legs and then inviting them to a lunchtime class on how to make splints.

“Employee engagement” surveys, now commonplace in many companies, might offer management some clues. But the typical questions they ask of workers — “Are you proud to work here?” — seem to dance around the edges. It would be better to go for the jugular: “How often do you go home exhausted? How often in the past year have you cried in the toilets? Is your team understaffed?”

If employers truly want to improve staff wellbeing, the answer isn’t in the free fruit bowl. It’s in the mirror.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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