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Supporting employees' mental health issues

For too many people, getting home after a hard day at work is not the comfort that it should be.

Indeed, for an increasing number, the pressure at home may be even more intense than the pressure at work, and this may affect their performance in their job.

For employers there is an awkwardness about where their duty of care for employees starts and finishes and how much they can intrude into the private lives of their colleagues, even if problems at home are spilling into their work.

At a conference in November, Paul Litchfield of BT told his audience that only 10% of the stress-related absence in his business was solely attributable to work. There is a similar picture with physical health conditions - especially those exacerbated by poor diet, smoking, alcohol use or lack of exercise. A proportion of sickness absence from work will result from these lifestyle choices and the health problems they cause, but employers have to manage the consequences of a problem they feel they cannot control.

The demands on our time, attention and psychological resilience from our lives outside work have changed markedly in the past 30 years. For example, more than 20% of UK workers nowadays are mothers; men with children under five years old work the longest hours; and up to eight million adults in the UK care for elderly or disabled relatives. At The Work Foundation we, together with colleagues at wellbeing company Robertson Cooper, have carried out research among hundreds of UK bank workers to examine what work and non-work pressures they are under and what impact they have at work and home.

The most prominent sources of work-related stress in our sample were a lack of control over their job, little influence over performance targets, growing job insecurity (and a presenteeism rate of 64%), lack of clarity over what their boss expects and - even worse - anxiety that their boss is forever finding fault. The non-work factors causing most anxiety are the impact of poor quality of sleep, the health of a family member, problems with ageing parents, financial insecurity and debt, rising prices of common goods, troubling thoughts about the future and concerns about their weight.

Previous researchers have struggled to unpick exactly how the work and non-work pressures interact with each other and what the cumulative impact of stress in the job and stress at home means for job performance, attendance and resilience. Some studies suggest a downward spiral of pressure and ill-health, especially if people feel they have little control over important aspects of work or their lives outside work. A Swedish survey showed work pressures often reinforced or caused low levels of physical activity outside work, which led to poorer physical health.

This must be baffling for HR professionals and line managers, who have to manage the difficulties faced by their staff as compassionately and constructively as possible. Raising awareness of employee assistance programmes (EAP) and establishing new ones that more closely match employee needs is probably a baseline requirement, especially if there is a counselling element.

The corporate culture has to be open and supportive enough for employees to feel they can safely ask for help or even disclose that they have a problem. In our survey of bank workers, fewer than one in 10 said they felt confident enough to talk about non-work problems with co-workers or their manager. This is a concern, especially if people are finding the toxic aspects of both work and home leave them with nowhere to turn.