You’re always on my mind – why mental health starts at work (World Suicide Prevention Day)

“Leave your work at the office,” they said. 

Well, remote working’s made this cliche feel a bit redundant – hasn’t it?

As the cost of living spirals and the economy continues to plunge, more and more people face increasing pressures at work which is influencing their mental health. Especially those working isolated at home, without the support they need.

And it’s having dire consequences. 

Each year, it’s estimated that around 703,000 people take their own life worldwide. And for every suicide, there are likely 20 other people making an attempt and many more having suicidal thoughts. 

Alarmingly, research suggests that around 10% of all UK suicides are actually work-related.

Sadly, it only makes sense when the lines between work and home life have become so blurred over the past couple of years.

That’s why this World Suicide Prevention Day, we’re taking the opportunity to put mental health front and centre in employers’ minds. Because when it’s hard enough to get devices to respect our boundaries, it’s worth addressing the source of these endless notifications first. 

Mental health at work – recognising there’s a problem

When most full-time employees spend one-third of their waking hours at work, it’s no secret that this occupation would play some part in our emotional well-being – for better and for worse. But for some reason, it’s been long brushed under the carpet. 

That is, until now.

“For the first time in November 2021, the Health and Safety Executive, which is responsible for UK workplace health and safety, included suicide prevention guidelines on its website,” says Sarah Waters, a professor at Leeds University.

Here are some of the key takeaways from HSE’s advice to employers:

  • Offer flexibility with working hours – doing so means that if there is anything going on outside of work, employees who are struggling may be able to balance things a little more easily. 
  • Allow workers time for legal advice, medical appointments and counselling – better still, why not offer therapy at work? This is something one of our clients is doing (we’ve written more about this and managing mental health from afar here).
  • Promote mental health at work – sounds obvious but if we’re going to beat the stigma, employers need to lead by example. So open up and talk about mental health within teams. Because if starting the conversation’s the hardest part, why not start it yourself?
  • Keep in touch with remote workers – another no-brainer really, but still essential. And it’s extra-important to be mindful of workers who are alone at home. Just think about all those impromptu moments of communication we miss out on when working remotely. This is especially hard for anyone who got the majority of their social connections from the office. 

You can find the HSE’s full suicide prevention guidelines here.

But despite it being a step in the right direction, Waters argues there’s still work to do.

“…the new guidelines are vague and reinforce a long-held stance that suicide is a personal event that is caused by problems brought to work, as opposed to something that is caused or exacerbated by workplace conditions or factors,” she told HR News

So what else can employers do? 

Start by being mindful of the signs 

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell if someone needs help. Especially if they don’t want anyone to know they’re struggling. 

And this is still overwhelmingly the case at work.

Research suggests that two-thirds of employees would not feel comfortable raising a mental or emotional well-being issue with their employer. 

Even Gen Z, a group supposedly much more open about its mental health, is not speaking up. Because despite 25% of zoomers feeling more emotionally distressed than older colleagues, only 33% say they’d feel comfortable talking to a direct manager about their mental health.

So what’s going on?

Well despite progress being made, there’s still an underlying stigma about speaking up. So when someone’s seriously struggling, you’ve got to know how to read between the lines.

Support service Beyond Blue has some helpful advice on what to look out for. Although subtle, there might be some behavioural or physical changes that could indicate things aren’t OK. 

Non-verbal indicators could include:

  • social withdrawal
  • a persistent drop in mood
  • disinterest in maintaining personal hygiene or appearance
  • uncharacteristically reckless behaviour
  • poor diet changes, rapid weight changes
  • being distracted
  • anger
  • insomnia
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • giving away sentimental or expensive possessions

Also, look out for indirect verbal expressions like:

  • hopelessness
  • failing to see a future
  • believing they are a burden to others
  • saying they feel worthless or alone
  • talking about their death or wanting to die.

However, the support service suggests it’s important to remember everyone’s different. With that in mind, each individual will likely respond in their own way to these thoughts and feelings. The above is not an exhaustive list, so just be guided by your instincts.

The problem is that it’s sometimes hard enough to pick up on someone feeling depressed in person – especially when many of us have become pretty adept at “putting the face on”. So how are employers supposed to manage it over a Zoom call?

Addressing the remote elephant in the room

Whether it’s financial instability, climate uncertainty or that constant dread of being furloughed or fired, so much anxiety comes from just not knowing what’s around the corner.

The thing is that when communication’s lost, it becomes far too easy to catastrophise. Because although remote working has brought with it an abundance of benefits, it’s caused many to get inside their heads from time to time. 

After all, it’s just not as easy to have a quick word with the boss anymore. “They’re probably too busy anyway, right?”

Younger workers, especially, can be left either worrying whether they’re doing “enough” or what their manager is actually thinking; amplified massively by the fact they’re no longer sitting across the desk from them. 

One study into workforce engagement and retention revealed that 51% of younger remote employees were worried their manager “had doubts about their productivity.” 

The problem is that this lead to 44% of them working longer hours and 37% skipping lunch breaks. 

Left unmonitored, this sort of behaviour can have dangerous consequences over time.

Supporting employees properly before they burnout

OK, it’s normal to feel unmotivated at work occasionally. After all, it’s hard to imagine a global movement like quiet quitting taking off if it wasn’t, right?

There’s just no reason for job burnout, though. This dangerous state of physical and mental exhaustion should never be normalised. 

According to Suicide.ca, there are many factors that can contribute to burnout – and they vary from person to person. However, here are some examples of how it can surface:

  • Low self-esteem
  • High self-expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Extensive responsibilities outside of work
  • Difficulty delegating responsibility
  • A focus on work at the expense of other areas of life (personal growth, activities with family and friends )
  • Difficulty respecting your limits when overworked (accepting all work assigned, bringing work home, etc.).

This leads to symptoms like a lack of concentration, insomnia, anxiety, depression and, eventually, suicidal thoughts. 

But what can you do to support healthier ways of working when employees are out of sight?

For Sharesz T. Wilkinson, Executive Communication Coach and Trainer at The Speech Improvement Company, it’s about showing them you care – not just saying you do. 

“Make sure the well-being of your remote employees is taken care of,” she tells Forbes. And to do that, you need to go further than a 10-minute check in. “Connect as a human being on a regular basis via video calls, not to micromanage or to display trust issues, but to gain honest feedback and opinions about how your mutual collaboration can be improved. Build real relationships,” she says.

But what do the employees themselves think?

Asked whether employers should take some responsibility for employee mental health, our gen Z respondees were unanimous in their responses. 

“It is really important for me, especially when I know that I had problems with my mental health in the past,” says Lilly (20). Romain, who’s also 20, agrees: “Supervisors should ask about the workload and not apply too much pressure,” he says.

So beyond checking in, what other initiatives can managers put in place?

Marcin (20) would like to see genuine support around mental health issues “…rather than just giving them minor benefits to boost morale,” he says.

For Eva (23), this is about respecting boundaries and  “..not expecting (free) over time. Not expecting me to answer emails out of hours.”

“I like the idea of ‘mental health holidays’ – like additional days that you can have off when you’re not feeling okay mentally,” says Lilly. She also reckons free access to a mediation app would be a good move. 

Sounds like a good idea on paper. But wouldn’t that be expensive to roll out across an entire organisation?

Not necessarily. Business Insider has a helpful list of 7 meditation apps that are free to use. 

Alternatively, you could try a demo of Headspace for Work to see if it’s worth investing in. 

But don’t expect instant results, warns workplace mindfulness trainer Chris Tamdjidi.

“Corporations tend to look for quick fixes. It is important that we communicate that mindfulness is not a magic pill but that it requires time and patience to cultivate,” he told the Oxford Mindfulness Foundation

Importantly, organisations shouldn’t use tools like this to patch over bigger organisational issues, e.g. a culture of overwork. 

“Rather than removing the source of stress, whether that’s unfeasible workloads, poor management or low morale, some employers encourage their staff to meditate: a quick fix that’s much cheaper, at least in the short term,” warns Will Davies, author of the Happiness Industry.

But you can’t put a price on someone’s mental health. More than ever before, it’s important we let employees know the door’s always open. Even if it is just a virtual one for now.

Know someone who’s in need of support? Here are some useful contacts in a crisis:

Samaritans

Support for anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. 

116 123 (freephone)

jo@samaritans.org

Shout

Confidential 24/7 text service offering support if you are in crisis and need immediate help.

85258 (text SHOUT)

Stay Alive

App with help and resources for people who feel suicidal or are supporting someone else.

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)

Listening services, information and support for anyone who needs to talk. This includes web chat.

0800 58 58 58

Maytree Suicide Respite Centre

Offers free respite stays for people in suicidal crisis.

020 7263 7070

Switchboard

Listening services, information and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

0300 330 0630

Gender Identity Research & Education Society (GIRES)

Works to improve the lives of trans and gender non-conforming people of all ages.

MindOut

Mental health service run by and for LGBTQ+ people.

The Mix

Support and advice for under 25s, including a helpline, crisis messenger service and web chat.

0808 808 4994

85258 (crisis messenger service, text THEMIX)

Papyrus HOPELINEUK

Confidential support for under-35s at risk of suicide and others who are concerned about them. Open daily from 9 am–midnight.

0800 068 41 41

07860039967 (text)

pat@papyrus-uk.org

Sane

Emotional support and info for anyone affected by mental health problems.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS)

Emotional and practical support for anyone bereaved or affected by suicide.