Before we talk about mental health in the workplace, let’s set the scene. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress against the Covid-19 virus. According to ‘Our World In Data’, at the time of writing, Israel had fully vaccinated over 60% of its population, the US almost half, and 40% of the UK. Here in Ireland, after a wobbly start, the rollout is gathering pace, with 10% fully vaccinated. After some of the most severe restrictions in the world, Ireland is starting to reopen. There is an end in sight where we can all get back to normal.
Or can we?
The wheels of the world’s economies will get back in motion. People will return to work and activities, but many question the long-term effects of the pandemic on our mental health. Thankfully, the subject matter is no longer taboo, and there are ways we can address it.
We will need to. Workers’ well-being will have a significant effect on our productivity and play a crucial role in whether we can avoid a global recession.
Mental health is more than concern about an individual
In the past decade, there has been an increasing number of studies on mental health and its effects on the workplace. It makes sense. We spend the majority of our awakened hours doing our jobs. As we’ll explore below, the demands of those jobs and the environment we work in have profound effects on our physical and mental health. The studies show that poor mental health among employees contributes to lost productivity. According to the World Health Organisation, depression and anxiety were estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost output.
And that was before Covid-19.
If we consider the increased levels of isolation for people over the last year, the elevated grief from restricted funerals, anxiety from job loss or job security, extra pressure with home-schooling and working, a decrease in our healthy eating and a lack of access to exercise; this will absolutely have aggravated our workplace mental health.
It’s good to talk
As recently as 2009, the Time to Change campaign – an umbrella group of charities and the British Institute of Psychiatry, surveyed 2,000 people across the country. Respondents said they would find it more difficult to admit to having a mental illness than a drink problem or going bankrupt.
Since mental illness is essentially invisible, it was perhaps easier for people to hide it, but that only exacerbated the issue. Thankfully, as a whole, we are now more educated on mental health and conditions such as bipolar, depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is no longer an embarrassing subject. More and more celebrities and sports stars are admitting to having experienced mental health issues. It’s getting more coverage in the media, and subsequently, the rest of us are feeling more comfortable seeking help. That might be professional help, or even just talking about it to our friends and families.
Addressing mental health in the workplace
Understandably, a lot of our mental health issues can emanate from where we work. Our jobs pay the bills, put food on the table and give us the ability to treat ourselves. If we feel, rationally or irrationally, we are in danger of losing our livelihood, our anxiety levels go up. Conversely, many of us are ambitious and want promotions and successful careers, which brings its own pressure.
The most extreme work-related mental health issues are found in Japan, where people literally work themselves to death. It even has its own name – Karoshi, which means “overwork death”. It’s usually caused by heart attacks or strokes due to working long hours, minimum food consumption and stress. Appallingly, there are even people who commit suicide due to overwork. It’s the product of history and culture that encourages working as long as possible. There are similar traits in China and South Korea.
Mercifully, things are changing in Japan. However, it took a tragedy that reached global attention. Matsuri Takahashi, 24, was an advertising executive with the huge firm Dentsu, which was renowned for its hard-working culture. She had worked 105 hours of OVERTIME in October 2015, sleeping just ten hours a week, and fell into depression. Matsuri took her own life while working on Christmas Day. She left behind a heartbreaking number of messages about her relentless working hours and the abuse she received from her boss.
Dentsu was charged over her death. Subsequently, the Japanese government started campaigns encouraging employers to limit overtime. In 2017 they introduced ‘Happy Friday’, asking companies to allow their staff to finish at 3pm on the last Friday of the month. In April last year, a new law was introduced that anyone working past 60 hours overtime would see their pay move from 1.25 to 1.5 of their salary rate.
Society in Japan has also been changing with the rise of the “freeters”, similar to contingent workers. ‘CPO Rising,’ a news site for Chief Procurement Officers, states that the contingent workforce gathered ground in the 1990s. Still, the freeter movement was a decade ahead. It was said to be a response to karoshi – young people choosing part-time work, in contrast to their elders working very long days.
The Right to Disconnect
We can be grateful that here in Europe, the working culture is very different. There are strict labour laws in countries such as France, Holland and Germany that prevent the exploitation of workers. The main concern is the portable digital devices that allow us to jump into our work, any time or any place. A study by Liuba Belkin found that the more time spent on work emails outside of working hours, the greater the instances of emotional exhaustion. This has led to a growing move towards the ‘Right to Disconnect’.
It started before we all had email on our mobile phones. In 2003, a directive was introduced which declared that EU member states must ensure workers receive a minimum daily rest period of 11 consecutive hours for every 24 hours. But it wasn’t until 2016 that France became the first EU state to bring in a Right to Disconnect law. While it’s not mandatory for organisations, employees have the right to sue, and cases have been won.
Italy, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg have legislation that employers must draw up policies on the right to disconnect. Portugal, Poland, Czechia and Lithuania ‘promote’ the right to disconnect, and while Germany may not have introduced legislation, companies like Volkswagen prevented employees from accessing emails after-hours a decade ago.
On April 1st, here in Ireland, the deputy prime minister signed a Code of Practice on the Right to Disconnect. It gives employees the right to switch off from work outside of regular working hours. They are under no obligation to respond immediately to emails, telephone calls or other messages.
Studies have shown that working long hours has been linked with anxiety, depression and heart disease. While conversely, using the weekend for rest from work reduces emotional exhaustion and keeps people engaged. But for some individuals working busy jobs, where they take pride in their work, the inability to connect to the work system or access emails can be stressful. Like most things, it comes down to individual choice and balance.
Mental health for contingent workers
With more of us permanent employees working from home during the pandemic, we also have flexibility. We can pick the kids up from school, do an online gym class during the day or pop down for some groceries.
However, there have been added pressures during the pandemic for people who suddenly had to work from home. The periods of home schooling were incredibly difficult for working parents and brought a whole new appreciation for the teaching profession. As well as school lessons, there was also the added housework from having everyone at home and the extra stresses and strains from everyone couped up together. Naturally, parents worrying about their children’s wellbeing brought added pressure on themselves. And that’s even before we consider managing the workload from our jobs.
While the jogging bottoms have gotten more wear than ever before and ‘work’ is literally only seconds away as a commute, carrying out your normal office duties where you live, brings its own strains. A survey in October by Telus International of 1,000 Americans, found four out of five found it hard to shut off from work in the evenings and half found their sleeping patterns disrupted. Most interestingly, 80% would consider quitting their current position for a job that focuses more on employees’ mental health.
We’re lucky here at CXC that we’ve always been a remote-first company. Our policies and work practices allow us to be as engaged as possible, so we’ve probably had an advantage making our way through the challenges of Covid-19. There’s also an employee assistance programme if we need any professional support. But for individuals used to leaving the office at 5.30pm, it’s been a different world the last year.
If your job i.e. your laptop and your phone are now residing in your kitchen or your bedroom, it’s probably more important than ever to have a ‘Right to disconnect’. Mental Health First Aid Ireland did a study last year and found 42% of those surveyed could not maintain boundaries between home and work life and half worked over their contracted hours.
Guidance for ‘switching off’
By now, we should be well used to working from home. But if the following can improve how you disconnect from work, it is worth mentioning.
- Stick to a routine – If you were heading to the office you’d have your breakfast, then get showered and dressed. I hope you’re doing the same at home. Yes, we have the flexibility to add extra activities like online gym in the morning or walking the dog at lunchtime, but try and keep your day fairly regimented as that helps your mental health.
- Have breaks – In the office, you probably stopped for a few coffee/tea breaks. Make sure you’re taking that 5-10 minutes away from the desk to stretch your legs and give your brain a rest.
- Plan an end to your workday – This is still part of your routine, but the most important part, as it’s telling your mind you are stopping work. It might be writing a to-do list for the next day, starting the dinner, watching some tele or going out for a walk/run. Have something that indicates your workday is over.
- Pack up when the workday is completed – if you’re lucky enough to have a room at home you use purely for working, then you can close the door at the end of the working day. However, if you’re working at the kitchen table, in the bedroom or living room; once your work is finished you should close the laptop and tidy it away with any papers or books to make that break from work.
- Rule your phone, don’t let the phone rule you – If you have a separate work phone it’s easier, just shut it down and pack it away with your laptop, unless you’re contracted to be on-call. If you’ve only one phone, it’s a little trickier. Do you need to have email on the phone? Having it on the laptop may suffice. Switch off push notifications, especially during your downtime and don’t take your phone to bed with you. If you need an alarm buy a clock.
- Be disciplined – The only way to follow the guidance above is to have self-control. If you make it a habit, it will become easier, but you just need to get through that first phase of temptation or laziness. This is even more important if your work evolves into a hybrid of home and the office.
The unplanned working conditions left a lot of us with challenges to our physical health, bringing further strain on our mental wellbeing – using a laptop all day on top of our beds or from the kitchen chair can be debilitating. If possible, it’s important we have a set place to work in our homes with a chair that is comfortable for the whole day. Use your keyboard with your wrists and forearms parallel to the ground and have your screen at eye level.
Tips for positive wellbeing
Switching off from work is a key benefit to our wellbeing but there are also other major considerations that can help:
- Sleep deprivation affects your psychological state, while a good night’s sleep (seven to nine hours) helps us strengthen mental and emotional resilience.
- Exercise reduces anxiety and depression by releasing endorphins. It also improves self-esteem and cognitive function.
- What you eat can make a big difference. Processed foods, bad fats and sugar can be detrimental, while fruit, vegetables, fish and seeds are great for your mind.
- Isolation can trigger all sorts of mental illnesses. If you live alone, stay in touch with friends and family outside of work hours. If you’re sick of Zooming, just have a good old fashioned phone call with a loved one and make plans for that time when we can all meet up again.
Speaking of meeting up again, there will be a stage when we’re all back to work similar to how we used to – meeting face-to-face. All of us have suffered some mental trauma during the pandemic, but some may still be suffering when we’re back inside the office.
- Look out for co-workers who might seem more subdued than they were. Maybe their energy levels aren’t the same, their body language is different, or they seem quieter.
- Try and find an opportunity for a one-to-one. It might be a meeting, going for a coffee or lunch. Allow them the chance to talk to see if they open up on any issues. If not, ask them if they are ok. If they don’t want to talk to you, suggest some of the professional services on offer.
- Keep your eye on them to notice any deterioration or absence from the office.
- Sometimes we all just need someone to be there for us, to lend an ear.
There are many unknowns post-pandemic. Will we all be safe from Covid-19? Will the economy get back on track? Will we keep our jobs and prosper? We need strong, positive mental health to successfully contribute to all these, whether we are contingent staff, full-time employees or non-workers. If you are struggling at the moment, please seek out help. There is a bright new dawn ahead; let’s be ready to embrace it.