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Combating mental health problems during hard times


Stress at workEducational charity, the Eden Project, has recently added stress awareness training to its mix. Jo Johnston explains why combating workplace stress has risen up the agenda as the economy has turned down, and highlights the benefits of training.

The economic downturn could cause a 26% rise in mental health problems, according to recent news reports. It is more evident than ever that businesses need to invest in their workforces to ensure they are happy and engaged – both in their job as well as in their home life.

This issue has the potential to affect more than 1.5 million people in the UK, and as a result shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley has urged the government to take action to prevent "a crisis in the making", with financial insecurity fuelling an increase in mental health problems ranging from anxiety to loss of self-esteem.

Photo of Jo Johnston"An American study has suggested that each percentage point rise in unemployment produces a 7% rise in non-psychotic mental health disorders."

Independent economists have predicted that the number of people out of work could reach 3 million by 2010 - a rise of 3.7%. An American study has suggested that each percentage point rise in unemployment produces a 7% rise in non-psychotic mental health disorders.

Further research from the TUC points to the fact that stress or overwork are increasingly being reported to union safety reps in offices and factories across the UK, especially in the public sector and large workplaces - with the highest number of cases in central government, education and the NHS. The TUC said research among 2,600 union safety reps showed that almost two thirds reported that stress or overwork are a concern in their workplace.

Helping employees and their families

Against that background, a stress awareness course was recently introduced at educational charity, The Eden Project. The new course is based on the qualification from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH). It is designed to raise awareness of the likely sources of work-related stress. Although aimed at general workers, it also serves as an introduction to the issue for more senior staff.

There are a number of key causes of stress in the workplace, with the most common being a long-hours culture, ill defined job roles, poor or ineffective line management and lack of resources. With the credit crunch affecting both work and home life, it is inevitable that people worried about money at home will also be stressed at work. There is no defined barrier between home and at work as far as stress is concerned.

Stress awareness benefits not only the individual but also their families and colleagues. The training encourages groups to share experiences – something that has proved successful and valuable in past training sessions. By doing this, individuals gain a better understanding of some of the physiological responses to stress. I have seen directly the benefits of this, through staff feeling more empowered to ask for support if they feel they need it.

Investing in health

In terms of a business, the concept of stress as an occupational hazard is still new territory for some people. Managers in particular can easily be alarmed if an employee claims they are stressed at work. Training in how to deal with this situation is essential.

"Managers in particular can easily be alarmed if an employee claims they are stressed at work. Training in how to deal with this situation is essential."

Stress can contribute to a large proportion of sickness absence and also affect productivity. All businesses need to recognise these risks, purely from an economic point of view if nothing else. Of course, the other consequences are unacceptable as well: low staff morale and unhappiness at work are not things that any employer should tolerate.

With the current economic climate, many organisations might shy away from investing in health and safety in the workplace. But it is more important than ever for businesses to invest in their employees to enable them to manage their stress more effectively.

There are also some small steps that businesses can take to support their workforce in this area. Employers can help their staff by acting as a source of information. Employers can also ask their staff how they might help them. Some suggestions might be bike purchase schemes, car sharing schemes, or allowing staff to sell items at work in an organised way.

There may also be more requests for flexible working as some people take on another job and try to balance their working life. Employers can also help by being flexible to allow staff to seek financial/benefit advice during work time.

But in addition to small steps like this, investing in stress awareness training will help to understand the causes of stress and tackle issues that are predictably rising with unemployment. It is a long-term investment in the workforce that reaps the benefits of the investment quickly, as well as providing sustained and continued payback into the future.

Jo Johnston is personnel manager at The Eden Project - an educational charity and venue aimed at encouraging people to learn how to look after nature, now and in the future. The stress awareness course at The Eden Project is scheduled to run three to four times a year. For more information visit:


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