The following statistic is decidedly heart-wrenching. I've learned that working days lost every year in the UK to anxiety, stress and depression now exceed 70 million, according to Support in Mind Scotland. Proving devastating for the individuals affected and their families, not to mention the economy and wider society, goodness knows what the statistic will be when the full impact of COVID-19 is finally taken into account.
Stress in the workplace is a personal thing. For one person, it can represent a fascinating challenge helping them to crack a key deal. For a close colleague, it can tip them over the edge and trigger distress, affecting their mental health. A situation exacerbated by the pandemic crisis and an acceleration in the practice of working from home, where being online hour-after-hour can carry with it the threat of, well, feeling remote.
Now we have warnings of a mental health 'perfect storm' on the winter horizon. Created by a combination of the recent Coronavirus lockdown, economic anxiety, enforced social distancing, poor weather and isolation. Add to this another lockdown and we face what some commentators claim could be the biggest mental health crisis since World War Two.
Office of National Statistics reveal that 69% of adults state the pandemic is having a negative effect on their life. Most of us will have experienced waking up early one morning and shuddering a little about work. Perhaps there is a big presentation to make or a difficult conversation to be had. For the most part, stress is all about working life. At times, it can give us the necessary 'push' to get the job done. But sometimes that shudder reaches more widely and deeply, lasting much longer and detaching from its original cause. This is when stress can turn into distress.
I pointed out in my monthly Daily Business Group column some warning signs: you're more likely to be concerned if you work 60+ hours a week; work for a small company; work in IT operations or in retail or leisure; have to cope amidst staff shortages; or in an organisation being held back by lack of available on-board skills.
Employers, in turn, should be aware of the following signs being displayed by employees: staff shortages means an employee is covering more than one job; the organisation is currently working on a particularly complex project; the executive team doesn't understand the time needed to develop, plot and implement a new technology; the balance of keeping the lights on with developing new innovative tech is a heavy burden.
The list goes on: 'Always on' tech, like work emails on an employee's phone, doesn't allow him/her to switch off; tech being driven outside the IT team creates a lot of issues and additional work; the tech lead in a business isn't a good manager; not enough is invested in external specialists to help deliver large digital projects.
There is a correlation between mental health and how supportive an organisation is to its staff, with unsupportive organisations almost three times more likely to be employing people who are concerned about their mental health. This statistic extends to employer attitudes towards flexible working, such as just how flexible the organisation is when it comes to enabling staff to work outwith the office and their executive eye. We're talking trust here.
One firm, Capito, is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a leading IT services and solutions provider by staging fun events like a t-shirt contest for staff and their families. The Livingston-based outfit also involved employees in a COVID-19 'Support to Victims' initiative, working with HP Inc to provide reconditioned devices, like laptops, to organisations in need. One such organisation was the Manda Centre, a charity assisting in relieving mental and physical suffering and distress to families and friends affected by trauma, loss and personal crisis.
Drake Music Scotland, the award-winning charity creating music-making opportunities for children and adults with disabilities, is running online sessions to help disabled musicians keep making music at home. Also, its 'Musicspace@home' project delivers one-to-one tuition sessions, Digital Orchestra, and iPad lab group rehearsals backed up by its music technology course in partnership with Edinburgh College.
These are prime examples of how it is the organisations who take their people with them, especially in difficult times, that stand a far better chance of maintaining a sense of wellbeing. In and out of the workplace.
Bill Magee is a freelance journalist who specialises in business and finance. He has written for many publications including The Scotsman, The Times, Business Insider and Reuters