I love mental health awareness week. Thousands of stigma challenging articles, blogs and social media posts. Support and advice shared. It’s a great change from even a few years ago.
by Phil Morcom
We can expect to talk more freely about mental health issues at work, acknowledge our own mental health struggles and in a community like comms2point0’s readership find positivity and support.
I am worried however that clear evidence from research for PRCA and CIPR, amongst others, shows mental health is a huge issue for our profession. And although we ought to feel more confident we can tackle mental health concerns in the workplace, I know only too well that many people don’t feel they have an independent and trustworthy source of support they can turn to if they’re struggling with an issue.
The biggest health and safety issue affecting workers in the media sector, is stress. However, too many employers still don’t treat it as seriously as more physical risks even through employees suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety take a yearly average of 29 days off sick.
For those of us who work in communications – whether marketing, media relations, design, internal or external and so much more – the pace of change seems to get ever faster. That change brings pressure. We have 24/7 incoming through (anti)social media to deal with, monitoring and responding to keyboard warriors and genuine worriers. Too often more and more is demanded from less and less resource.
Thankfully there are some great people and organisations out there trying to help us deal with all this. You’ll have hopefully read their pieces here and seen the Comms Unplugged benefits. From getting skills training to cope with technical changes to sharing hard-won wisdom there are positive tales to tell.
How do you recognise if there’s a problem where you work? Indicators could imply stress is a problem if you have:
· high levels of sick absence
· high staff turnover
· long working hours
· near-impossible to achieve workloads
· an aggressive workplace culture that tolerates bullying
Our trade employs ‘people pleasers’. We’re surrounded by good folk who do their best to do the impossible yesterday. We often at the forefront of difficult and unpleasant stuff – from crafting messages about redundancies to issuing statements about death and disaster Those of us who work with emergencies from the blue light services to disaster relief know we can see and hear some harrowing stuff.
My worry for people is that too often they face tough times and they don’t belong to a trade union. While their employer may have a telephone helpline or mindfulness program, they don’t have a union rep to share their story with over a cuppa. A rep who can objectively look at the situation and see if they actually being asked to do something that would fail the test of health and safety, equality or other legislation, if they are being treated unreasonably or asked to behave unethically.
The admirable current trend for employers to have mental health first aiders in the workplace and for workers to be encouraged to look after their own mental health also risks missing employment responsibilities. Employers need to after the health and safety of their staff and be able to demonstrate they are doing so, whether that health is physical or mental. The kind of thing our grandparents in unions fought for over past decades saw safeguards around equipment and environments. Luckily things are catching up with mental health. Recent years have seen unions bring employers to book for failing their employee’s mental health just as surely as if they asked them to operate a lathe untrained, 18 hours a day with no breaks.
And for those of us who manage staff, we can step back and maybe look at the things people who face depression tend to feel. As the World Health Organisation point out: "people with depression normally have several of the following: a loss of energy; a change in appetite; sleeping more or less; anxiety; reduced concentration; indecisiveness; restlessness; feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm or suicide."
Typical factors acknowledged to cause stress include:
· lack of control
· long hours
· heavy workloads – the never ending ‘to do’ list
· lack of job satisfaction
· too much responsibility
· too little responsibility
· low pay and isolation
· poor working environment
· infrequent breaks
· taking work home
· job insecurity – real or perceived
· lack of a job
· financial worries
As managers – and workers – this can give some hints about what may help. Monitor colleagues for the symptoms, make sure staff know they are valued to help combat the feelings of worthlessness and give them clear purpose and guidance. Are there other issues in the workplace which can help? Is an open-plan, hot-desking environment unsettling for someone who needs to feel stability? Is there a way to not overload someone with different tasks for a while?
The HSE’s Talking Toolkit ‘Preventing Work-related Stress’ takes managers through every risk they should be assessing and suggests minimum reasonable precautions the HSE think every employer should have in place. It identifies six key factors that are ‘stressors’, potentially affecting the mental health of everyone involved with an organisation. These overlap with the factors mentioned above: demands, control, support, relationships, roles and change. The HSE poses questions which effectively let employers know ‘you have been warned’ and explain what to do. If there’s one document really worth reading this week, then this is it. Interestingly it even tells employees how they should feel. For managers the document is a huge help. But it is also a challenge and employers need to be aware they could face legal consequences.
At the NUJ (and other unions), we are successfully representing members on a regular basis when their employer has failed to take proper steps to protect someone’s health – mental or physical. We’re another mate in the corner when it gets tough.
Phil Morcom is Chair of NUJ Public Relations and Communications Council
Say hello at @philmorcom and @NUJ_PRmembers
Image via Miami University Library