Finding the balance - mental wellbeing in the workplace

To recognise this year’s World World Mental Health Day, Ben Bolton, Digital Resilience Research Lead, Headstart Kernow & SWGfL, reflects on his own experiences of Mental Health in the workplace, the theme for 2017, and offers his thoughts on how we can work to improve mental wellbeing in the education sector.

Some people will balk at the idea; “I’m far too busy for reflection” I hear you scream, “I have targets, the company relies on me to make things happen”. Yet mental health in the workplace is a serious matter that we need to address as a priority.

No sector is immune to this challenge. However, in this article, I would like to consider this issue in the context of teachers.

I spend a lot of time working with education settings and see some fantastic work. I also see the other side. The side where school based staff are under intense scrutiny and pressure common in many sectors. The key difference is, in no other setting do you have the wellbeing of hundreds of young people under your care for 6 hours each day. If we don’t look after ourselves, how can we look after those in our care.

School based staff work in a culture of inspections and target-setting which some teachers find puts a strain on their mental health.  According to an Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) survey last year many teachers reported stress and exhaustion, while more and more teachers are complained of "unacceptable workloads" and insufficient support from schools over "challenging parents". I think the latter point is one that is not well understood or appreciated.

I should point out, I certainly do not claim to be expert on mental health in the workplace. My views are based upon my own personal experience of anxiety and depression and trying to balance this with performing at work and continuing to wear the “I’m fine” mask. I have worked in a number of organisations and have experienced some very different approaches to dealing with mental health issues. Some have been good, and some, well…. not so good.

Some readers may be shocked that I so openly admit that I have suffered mental health issues. I am not seeking sympathy, I am not seeking any special treatment, I am no different to millions of other people in the UK. However, from my current position, which is pretty stable, I am more than happy to share. Talking openly without fear is half the battle. By talking openly about this issue, I hope that some of the taboos and stigma associated with mental health will, in time, become more diluted.

What is mental health?

Before we get too heavily involved in the meat of this discussion, it is probably wise that we take a moment to reflect on a key question. What is Mental Health?

On the face of it, this looks like a simple question, but it is not as straight forward as it sounds. A quick trawl through the literature will uncover an array of “models” of mental health. For some, the roots of mental health issues are spiritual, for some it is a medical or biological issue and for others it is a social / environmental phenomenon. Whilst I have a fairly strong view on this subject, it is not for me to either support or dismiss any of these. You can make up your own mind.

The key point that I would like to make is that there is no single explanation and in the vast majority of cases, it could be a combination of factors impacting a person’s emotional wellbeing. What I do know for a fact is that this is not a lifestyle choice. Mental Health issues are very real, surprisingly common and can be just as paralysing as any physical ailment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community” 

Mental Health or mental illness 

For me this “state of wellbeing” is a critical point. Mental health can be both good and bad. Mental health is a continuum that we move up and down based upon a range of factors. It is not static, it is not the outcome of one particular stimulus, it is a sum of all elements of our life. The WHO definition picks up on the positive aspects of mental health and puts it in the context of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not simply the absence of “illness”.

The new workplace epidemic

I am not naïve enough to think everyone will embrace or even recognise this subject of mental health in the work place. There is undoubtedly a school of thought that would recommend “snapping out of it, pulling yourself together and dealing with the real world”. If you subscribe to this view, and I make no judgement, I really hope you can find a way to at least reflect on this issue. I can’t ask any more than that.

For many people, stress and mental health issues are interchangeable terms. I am not so sure. It is possible to walk into any organisation and hear the familiar story “he is off work with stress”. Workplace stress is one of many determinants of mental health issues, it is not a mental health condition in its own right.  Talking about stress as a condition is not helpful.

Being absent “with stress” is often seen as being weak. Is it any wonder people hide their mental health issues for so long? 
Stress one of many causal factors that can undoubtedly lead to anxiety or depression and many other mental health conditions in just the same way as bereavement or relationship issues can. It is these conditions that keep a person away from work.

What does the evidence tell us?

There is a vast amount of intelligence to quantify the impact of mental health in the workplace. The following headlines are taken from an NHS / NICE resource and relate to general workplace mental health:

  • Each year, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health issue
  • 25% of staff surveyed had considered resigning due to stress impacting their mental health and wellbeing.
  • In the last 6 years, the number of days taken off due to mental health issues has increased by 46%
  • 70 million working days are lost each year as a result of mental health issues costing £70 – 100bn. People remaining at work whist suffering is thought to double this figure (presenteeism).
  • The UK has the highest level of antidepressant prescriptions in Europe with over 50 million per year.

What is the individual impact?

  • Less than half of employees felt able to talk to their employer about this issue.
  • 9 out of 10 people experiencing a mental health issue have experiences stigma or discrimination.
  • 56% of businesses said that they would not hire a person with depression. 

How does this play out in Schools?

Schools are no different to any other place of employment. They are busy environments, expectations are high and the pressure to perform increases at regular intervals. There is little doubt that a career in education can be one of the most rewarding, but increasingly, it is becoming one of the unhealthiest.

A recent survey of 778 teachers in Scotland found that 46% of respondents rated their mental health as being poor or very poor. Moreover, 15% of the sample admitted to taking medication because of this issue. Based upon my observation, I have little reason to think the situation is any different in the rest of the UK. In fact, I would contend that we may still be seeing an under-reporting due to the stigma surrounding the subject.

We quite rightly spend significant time and resource in improving the emotional health and wellbeing of pupils. Meanwhile, it would appear that the emotional wellbeing of school based staff is becoming an issue of significant importance. I have little doubt that despite best efforts, this stress, anxiety and general feeling of helplessness is having an impact on the young people in our care.

Why is this issue so bad in schools?

The reasons are many and varied. Partly this is an outcome of previous Government policy decisions and an inspection framework heavily skewed towards academic achievement at the expense of so many other things. On top of this, many of the support services that previously helped take pressure off schools have been lost during austerity. Services that previously would have supported more complex cases are often no longer available.

There is a whole other issue here about an education system that was designed for a different age. The current system of education was designed during the Industrial Revolution and it has pretty much stayed the same since. For those who are traditionally “academic”, at ease with the core subjects of Maths, English and Science, the system may work. For young people interested in the arts, physical education, or learning through hands on experimentation, school is often little more than an irrelevance. Many of the world’s most successful people have had a very bad experience of the school system.

Sir Ken Robinson talks at length about this and I would recommend anyone to take some time to become familiar with his work. An example can be found here https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms

Technology's role

Having talked to the UK Safer Internet Centre’s Professional Online Safety Helpline (POSH) team about this issue, it is quite clear that school based staff face significant challenges from the online world. Challenges that are personal. Not aimed at the school, but aimed at them as individuals.

POSH’s database has numerous examples of teachers being the target of online abuse. Sometimes this will be from pupils, more often from overzealous parents. A single comment on Facebook can lead to an “echo chamber” effect whereby the antagonism escalates, at times becoming disturbing.  There aren’t many professions where you are told quite openly that “I know where you live and I am going to come around and cut you up”.

This erosion of empathy and the echo chamber effect is becoming more and more of a challenge. For example, it could be as simple as a child being kept in at playtime because they had been disruptive in class and not completed the set task. Not unreasonable you might think. However, it is not uncommon for this kind of relatively minor disagreement to escalate into a tirade of abuse that can become very personal. I have no doubt that teachers have always faced parental scrutiny. However, the advent of social media has taken this into the wider social domain and teachers have become fair game for disgruntled students and parents. It has almost become a spectator sport.

Teachers also face the constant threat of other forms of attack online e.g. impersonations.   It is by no means unheard of to find a cloned account set up in a teacher’s name and questionable content posted. Often this is nothing more than a harmless prank, and all can see the funny side. However, there is a darker side where the intent is certainly not to make people laugh. Regardless of the motivation, once something is made public online, the motivation is irrelevant. It simply becomes data on which future decision will be based. Data that could seriously damage a career and cause untold personal pain and suffering.

I have provided a couple of examples, many more exist. It is difficult to think about any other profession where reputation can be so easily tarnished. This one sided “trial by Facebook” can cause great anxiety. I agree, teachers, as with any public-sector employee, should be accountable. However, this kind of pubic naming and shaming is taking this to a whole new level.

What can we do?

It would be easy to say that the solution lies in the hands of Government and improved funding. Whilst I think there is some truth in this, realistically, despite claims to the contrary, the amount of funding is not going to change significantly. We have to find other ways to deal with this issue and it isn’t going to be easy.

I am not for a second letting Government off the hook, they have a role. If our government is truly as serious as it claims to be about tackling this issue, it urgently needs to address ways to make teaching a job where support is available when the needs of the pupil extend beyond the realms of teachers’ expertise. Where the nuances of the job (beyond league tables and exam results) are recognised and, above all, staff wellbeing is made a priority.

Rather than focus on the procurement of high cost interventions, extra-curricular activities or other such high-profile examples of supporting staff mental health, it would be more useful to focus on the things that are largely cost neutral. They are things that can be done today. They are simple things, but often the simple things get forgotten in the heat of battle.

The government can help a lot in shaping this issue. However, I would argue Senior Leaders can make a massive difference.

Leadership can make the difference

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a School Leader could wave a magic wand and make these issues go away? Unfortunately, these challenges will not be overcome overnight. However, our response to them can be and Senior Leadership is critical in this.

Leadership, unlike management, is a matter of attitude, not position. Some of the best Leaders have been those with very little positional power or authority to oversee large scale change. Some of the best Leaders have simply had the power of conviction, the drive to make things better and the tenacity to keep fighting when things get tough. Their unwavering belief in a cause, or their vision of the future has made the difference, not their position within an organisation.

Many of us will have undertaken copious amounts of training to become good at our jobs. We become fantastic at doing our job, and this usually culminates in a promotion. With promotion, often comes the responsibility of leading others to “do” the job. Once promoted, we are no longer doing the job we know inside out, we are now responsible for other people, not a process. Our role is to take care of others to allow them to be their very best.  And what training are we given to help us with this…. usually somewhere between little and none.

As a Leader, there is no greater responsibility then setting the tone of the organisation, shaping the ethos and the culture. In our over inspected school, the constant pressure to deliver improved results, to always do the right thing has created a pressure cooker. In industry, the constant threat of being laid off is seen as a motivator. The overt threat “you are lucky to be in a job” is used to drive performance, yet, it actually has the reverse effect. The same is true in schools. Constant judgement is exhausting and does nothing to improve performance.

As a Leader, you are in a position to make a difference. What great leaders recognise is that whilst performance is essential, it will only be achieved if staff are made the number one priority.  The wellbeing of staff is the focus of empathic leadership and is what ultimately will drive up performance. I know from personal experience, the minute I feel I am being watched, being judged and being scrutinised for my action, my performance will drop significantly. When I feel I have leaders who believe in me, trust me and support me through the good and the bad, then I flourish. I know I am not alone in this. The key difference between the two approaches…. Empathy!

Like the definition of mental health discussed earlier, great leaders recognise that human beings are complex and have multiple facets. Performing badly at work is usually not a choice. It is usually the result of something not being right. As a Leader, your job is to support your people make things right. But you can only do this if staff are prepared to talk, so once again we come back to the importance of creating a culture of trust, openness and a freedom to show vulnerability is essential.

As a Leader, you have to take the risks yourself. For instance, at present the inspection regime and the intense focus on academic attainment as the only indicator of success is creating untold damage to both staff and in turn, pupils. As a Leader, it is your role to focus on the long term, not just getting through each inspection. Short term, fear based business models are bad for people and bad for performance.

The best companies in the world do not concern themselves with “always” being  top dog. They concern themselves with long term success and sustainability. They will be there creating value long after their competitors have passed by. They have a vision, a cause and a belief in what they are doing.  This is an important lesson. As a leader, you can take a decision to take a short term hit, in order to achieve longer term success.

An empathic leader, someone who truly values staff, will be prepared to see performance drop a little whilst focussing on the wellbeing of their team. They will stand strong and take the criticism when things appear to be failing because they have a greater belief and a longer-term cause.  In schools, it is slightly more difficult because of the inspection regime being so intolerant of fluctuations in performance, but conviction in the longer term and wellbeing of staff is critical.

A strong leader will create a culture whereby “trial by Facebook” is not tolerated, and is unwittingly policed by parents themselves. A culture where this behaviour is so strongly countered that it becomes socially unacceptable. I am not talking about “banning” this behaviour. I am talking about raising standards, demonstrating impact, and the sharing of a moral code. This will require huge effort, time and a fundamental change in community standards.

Empathy

So, what has all this Leadership stuff got to do with Mental Health in the workplace? Leaders hold the key to this. Until Leaders show the strength and conviction to stand strong, embrace empathy and put staff wellbeing as the number 1 priority, very little will change. Motivating by fear of losing a livelihood, whilst all too common, is very short term and WILL lead to an unhealthy culture. A culture where staff operate on the brink of wellbeing the vast majority of the time.

This is possibly, the most important area we should be focused on at present. Here are some tangible tips that can help impact change. However, do not forget THE most important part, empathy, treating staff as human beings, people who need to feel safe and valued. Anything else is simply encouraging under performance and stress.

Prevention

Prevention is always better than cure so be proactive, . and set the standards for others to follow:

  •  Develop a Mental Health Policy – having a concrete policy reassures employees that their organisation cares about their wellbeing. Maybe involve staff in developing the policy. 

  • Engage other key stakeholders in the conversation e.g. parents and pupils. The more widely this is understood, the better.
  • Create a culture of openness and awareness by encouraging people to talk about mental health. 
Make sure you model this behaviour and show that vulnerability, asking for help is OK… better than that, it is expected.
  • Invest in training or awareness raising. If staff feel line managers are knowledgeable about mental health issues, they are far more likely to talk. Also, you will no doubt find issues are identified earlier as triggers will be known.
  • Get to know staff. The better we know our teams the more chance we have of identifying when things are getting tough. We will notice behaviour changes and patterns.
  • Communicate openly. Use staff briefings to assert the message. Find out what the reality is and how it can be improved. As a leader, your role is to make sure you allow your staff to be well and be their best. Not because of the bottom line benefits, but because it is a worthy end in itself… rest assured, performance will follow.
  • Introduce regular staff discussion or even clinical supervision for staff to ensure they have an outlet and a means of discussing issues.
  • Your goal is to make it OK to talk openly, to ensue this issue does not go underground and fester. The ways in which to achieve this are endless.

Intervention

Despite best efforts, there will be occasions when staff do feel overwhelmed by the pressures upon them. If this happens it is important to:

  • Identify a go-to person. We spend a lot of time making sure young people know who to turn to in a crisis, staff need the same. Every member of staff should have someone else looking out for them and vice versa. The ultimate aim is that this won’t be needed because everyone will be looking out for each other. 
  • Check that you have an Employee Assistance Programme in place to provide additional support for staff
if they’re having difficulties inside or outside the workplace – these can offer a range of services from counselling through to legal advice 
  • Seek the advice of your health partners. Your Employee Assistance Programme will have plenty of resources available to help your managers become more comfortable with the issues relating to mental health

In Summary

Stress in the workplace is having a huge impact on mental health and it is not something we can afford to ignore. This is unlikely to go away of its own accord. We will need to take positive action to reverse this trend. Whilst there might be a cost associated with this action, the cost of not doing so will be far more severe.

Success can be measured in so many ways; profit, margin, exam results. However, we must recognise that delivering ever-increasing targets simply won’t happen if staff are experiencing mental health challenges.

Employee wellbeing should be the number one priority in any organisation, and they should go to whatever lengths required to deliver this. If we can get this part right, everything else will naturally follow.

Whilst change is far easier if it comes from the top, if there is enough will, this change can come about from anywhere within an organisation. Think long term, be prepared to suffer short term consequences and believe in what you are doing. Focus on your “why” and don’t let anything stand in your way. Fight for staff wellbeing, create an emotionally intelligent and empathic culture and the results might just surprise you.

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