Working together towards change in workplace culture

Professor Gail Kinman (University of Bedfordshire) reports from a British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology (DOP) and Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) event on workplace mental health.

Mental health is the leading cause of disability in the UK. Work has a particularly powerful impact on our wellbeing and more knowledge is urgently needed to help organisations protect the mental health of employees and support those with existing problems. The BPS Division of Occupational Psychology (DOP) and the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) have recently formed a partnership to work towards these aims. In early October, we jointly organised an event that considered the challenges faced by organisations and individuals and ways in which mental health could be promoted. The event, sponsored by Aviva UK Health, was attended by 300 occupational psychologists, occupational health clinicians, HR professionals and workplace wellbeing champions. 

Dr Sally Coomber, Deputy Director of Occupational Health and Staff Wellbeing for Public Health England, reviewed the UK statistics on mental ill-health in working age populations. Common mental disorders (CMDs) are the leading cause of sickness absence, costing the economy £70 billion. Young women are at greatest risk, but the prevalence of mental health problems is generally increasing. Sally summarised the ways in which CMDs impact on work and outlined several approaches to improving mental health in this context. She presented a new mental health toolkit for employers and provided evidence that training managers in mental health awareness is particularly effective. 

Our next speaker was Professor Neil Greenberg from King’s College London, who is a psychiatrist specialising in mental ill-health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in working contexts. Neil argued that work is essential for health and happiness, but it can be a significant source of stress and lead to anxiety, depression and alcohol misuse. Particular focus was placed on his work on trauma in the armed forces; an environment where mental ill-health is heavily stigmatised. This stigma encourages them to rely on their peer group and family for support rather than approach mental health professionals. Worryingly, people who are most distressed are the least likely to seek help. Neil explained that improving mental health at work is far more complex than managing physical disorders. He presented research showing the importance of multi-level interventions, such as leadership training, developing supportive teams and increasing peer support. The importance of increasing self-reliance in managing stress, while encouraging appropriate help-seeking was also emphasised.

The final speaker of the day, Professor Ivan Robertson from Robertson Cooper and Manchester Business School, reviewed what is known about how work can influence psychological wellbeing, physical health and work behaviour. The need to take a positive approach to workplace mental health was highlighted, where the goal is to help people flourish, rather than merely reduce the stress they experience. Ivan presented evidence for strong relationships between chronic stress and serious physical disorders such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Research findings that confirm the benefits of positive psychological wellbeing (PWB) for health and individual and organisational performance were also discussed. For example, studies have found that PWB is related to cognitive functioning, flexibility and creativity and motivation and commitment. Ivan outlined the ASSET approach to assessing workplace wellbeing, highlighting its value for organisations to take a strategic, goal-focused approach to improving PWB, health and job performance.

The DOP and the SOM intend to work together in the future to share best practice in promoting mental health at work to researchers and practitioners from both disciplines. A summit is planned for 2018, where representatives of both societies will identify priorities for action and discuss the way forward. Several themes have already been identified, such as detecting problems at an early stage, tackling loneliness and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness.

- See also Thriving at work: An independent review of mental health and employers by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer; and our recent feature on the changing workplace.

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Great easy to understand article