COLLABORATION

Universities highlighting the importance of mental health in the workplace

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Depression and anxiety costs the global economy US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

A huge majority of people will spend much of their adult lives in the workplace. While this used to be restricted to the office or a factory floor, the very nature of a “workplace” has changed dramatically over recent years.

The proliferation of the internet and communication technologies now mean the workplace is wherever you happen to have a smart phone or a tablet. Anywhere your laptop resides, is now your office.

This can make work difficult to leave behind if the emails always lurk in your back pocket. Especially as the pressure grows ever more fierce with increased international competition and greater expectations for cost efficiency, teamed with higher productivity – a catch-22 that’s far from easy to achieve.

While this changing environment has undoubtedly brought great opportunity, it has also led to a spike in anxiety and depression sparked by unhealthy, high-pressured work environments.

A new study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that working excessively long days could be detrimental to mental health.

Using data from over 23,000 men and women, researchers found women who clock 55 working hours or more every week might have a higher risk of depression. Also, working weekends can increase depression risk for both men and women.

In the United States, 40 percent of people surveyed by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America said they experience persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives as a result of workplace issues – the main culprits being deadlines, staff management, and interpersonal relationships.

While a lot of this is a result of companies driving for higher productivity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that it could have the opposite effect, instead costing the global economy US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

“A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity,” WHO says.

“Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”

It is for that very reason the UK Midlands government is investing in research and programmes aimed at improving mental health in the workplace.

The Midland’s Engine – a coalition of councils, combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships, universities and businesses across the region – has awarded £6.8 million of government funding to a consortium of health professionals, academics and business leaders to work on the project.

Headed up by Midlands Enterprise Universities partner, Coventry University, and supported by Warwick University, the consortium will launch a pilot scheme to find innovative ways of reducing levels of sickness absence and the number of people falling out of work because of mental health conditions.

Also involved are Loughborough University and the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham. The pilot programme is expected to last three years and will start by scoping data collection from health professionals and recruiting over 1,000 small, medium and large businesses to take part.

“Mental health has a huge impact on productivity with 15.4 million working days lost every year due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18,” Midlands Engine programme director, Fiona Piercy said in a statement.

“This pilot is a fantastic opportunity for the Midlands to find new and proven ways to support people with mental health conditions to remain in work and be effective in their roles.

“It cannot be underestimated the positive impact this work could bring to our region.”

As the programme progresses beyond data collection, co-leader Warwick University plans for measures to be developed and employed that allow for the early identification of mental health problems. They will also provide a range of bespoke actions to provide support to those with difficulties and develop appropriate advisory mechanisms.

The end results, it is hoped, will go some way to addressing the £33 to £42 billion a year loss in productivity caused by poor mental health.

“[The project] will make a huge difference to employees and employers across the whole region and further. A step change in activity is required to address poor mental health and help people to thrive at work,” said Professor Caroline Meyer, from Warwick’s WMG and Warwick Medical School.

“The workplace provides a unique opportunity to identify and support those people who might otherwise receive no intervention, as well as supporting those with existing problems, and the result of this project will be tools that will enable us to do just that.”