Most of my work around mental health and wellbeing involves talking to people in workplaces. Inevitably, therefore, there can be an assumption that when we talk about stressors they will be work related issues. But that’s not right. I am the same person in work as I am outside of work and the stresses I am dealing with in the one inevitably end up being carried over into the other.
If I am feeling stressed at home, I will come to work in a distressed state and vice versa. My capacity to handle stress, my bucket to use the model from Mental Health First Aid for England, is already partly used up, part full. There is a reduced capacity for extra stress – we all know that feeling when you come home from a tough day at work and your partner or kids start asking you about all sorts of challenging stuff the moment you walk in the door and you just want to say “STOP, I have had a shitty day and I just cannot deal with this right now”.
Also, if we have been subjected to stress then our fear systems will have been activated, preparing us for fight or flight and at the same time reducing our cognitive functioning capability. If we are dealing with stress at home, therefore, we can arrive at work in an already agitated state (and vice versa) so that we will be pre-primed to react defensively and/or aggressively to any provocation, anything our already agitated brain might perceive as a potential threat.
And I know from my own experience that if you end up getting really ill with mental health problems, those problems do not come nicely labelled saying this was caused by work or this was caused by your brother, your parents or your partner. You are just ill and trying to work out what “caused” it is often a pointless and self defeating exercise.
Of course, employers cannot do much to help their employees with stresses outside of work. What they can do, however, is provide information. On the one hand this might come in the form of mental health awareness training which will help the employees understand, be aware of and nurture their wellbeing both in and outside of work. An employer can also think about initiatives to help support people in promoting their general wellbeing – exercise, learning, giving, taking notice and connection as per the New Economics Foundation’s five ways to wellbeing.
Employers can also provide information and signpost employees to helpful resource. One of the most obvious causes of stress, and a key risk factor for depression and anxiety, is relationship breakdown. There is the loss of the relationship itself which of course can be hugely profound. There is also the way that the breakdown is dealt with. Lengthy, contentious, ugly breakdowns cause huge amounts of stress and are also hugely distracting in terms of time – we only have so much time and energy in a day and if you are spending large chunks of that fighting your ex, there is that much less remaining to devote to your work.
Dialogue First is a new service, being promoted through employers, to encourage separating couples to engage in structured family mediation in order to resolve relationship breakdowns. It offers a fixed price service where the parties have the benefit of legal advice but where that advice is all about getting them to a successfully mediated outcome. The employer does not pay for anything and of course does not need to get involved in, or even know about, the relationship breakdown. All the employer has done is provide information, offering an alternative to the high street solicitor that will often be the first port of call, or trying to do things on your own which, although less expensive, can be even more stressful.
What’s in it for the employer? Simple. A difficult situation which would have caused huge amounts of stress and distraction, with inevitable impact on the wellbeing and productivity of the employee, is less stressful, less distracting, and has less impact on the employee’s productivity.
The stresses affecting a workforce will not all be work related. Those other sources of stress are not the employer’s fault, but if the problems they cause manifest themselves in the workplace then they are the employer’s problem. Why wouldn’t an employer want to do something to help, particularly if there’s no cost involved. Its just one of the tools an employer might want to keep in a mental health and wellbeing strategy toolkit.