The Stevenson / Farmer review of mental health and employers
Here at Emotional Health at Work we welcome the Farmer / Stevenson report, titled Thriving at Work, which we hope will bring recognition to the critical importance of mental and emotional health in the workplace. The news that poor mental health at work costs the UK economy as much as £99bn per year should leave both government and business in no doubt as to the urgency of this issue.
Any report that attempts to provide practical and actionable advice on an issue relating to the entire UK workforce must be unspecific, and for the large part the document does an excellent job of encouraging change, whilst allowing organisations the freedom to judge what exactly that change must entail within their sector/context.
At many points, the report aligns with our own approach. We believe that creating a psychologically safe culture is a key enabling factor for an emotionally healthy workplace. The report recognizes that line managers are crucial in this area, and notes that current provisions for training are not adequate:
"Employers want to do the right thing but line managers lack the training, skills or confidence required to effectively support others at a very basic level. Only 24% of managers have received some form of training on mental health at work."
Much of the report is focused on this change of culture within the workplace, to one that is more nurturing and emotionally healthy. This can clearly be seen within the six mental health core standards that it puts forward:
"3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling, during the recruitment process and at regular intervals throughout employment, offer appropriate workplace adjustments to employees who require them.
4. Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.
5. Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and well-being with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader and train and support line managers and supervisors in effective management practices."
However, we would like to suggest that the report is not bold enough in the changes that it suggests. There are points at which it comes close to the real heart of the issue, as when it talks about working practices in Scandanavia – “Employees in Nordic countries report feeling a sense of autonomy in their work, something that has long been associated with high job satisfaction.”
How is this quotation different to what we have read so far? It is different because in highlighting employee autonomy, it focuses on the power of effecting change at the level of employees, i.e from the ground up, rather than trying to impose it from the top down.
This focus on employee autonomy does not make it in any meaningful way into the six mental health core standards. It is for this reason that we would like to suggest that the report does not go far enough: it takes too literally the Prime Minister's request to examine 'how employers can better support the mental health of all people currently in employment'.
Our research shows that the most effective way of fostering employee well-being and good mental health does not work top-down, but from the ground up. Companies must provide resources and courses that up-skill their employees: which give them the competencies needed for strong emotional health and resilience, and therefore provide the employees themselves with the tools and skills to promote and maintain their own emotional well-being. A change in company culture will follow on from this organically.
The report seems to fall into the trap of being too focused on curative measures without tackling the real issue: that workers are not equipped to deal with the pressures and stresses that their work confronts them with as a matter of daily routine. Without the skills needed to navigate these pressures, it is all to frequent that they develop into, or contribute to, poor mental health. We aim to effect deep-rooted, structural change, and therefore prevention.
Of course, measures like “6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and well-being by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors” are absolutely crucial for those with more serious mental health issues. However, it is our belief that the real challenge we face is the fostering of an emotionally healthy workforce. Emotionally healthy employees have the power not just to nurture their own well-being (and indeed know when help is needed), but to have a positive impact on those around them, allowing the benefits to percolate into all levels and aspects of an organisation. Such a change positively impacts the well-being of those with good mental health, as well as those with poor mental health.
The first item on the report's Mental Health Core Standards would in fact allow for the approach suggested by Emotional Health at Work:
"1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan that promotes good mental health of all employees and outlines the support available for those who may need it."
We sincerely hope that the power of ground-up change is swiftly recognised.