Last summer, at Community’s summer conference, delegates voted overwhelmingly for the union to focus one of its priority campaigns on mental health in the workplace. When I heard this, I was extremely heartened. Our country faces a mental health crisis, and to tackle it we must address the causes of mental distress and ill health across society.
Work can take up a huge proportion of our lives, both in terms of the time we spend there and the energy we devote to it. Employment can be extremely beneficial for our mental health, but when it becomes a stressor, it can have a highly negative impact on us as individuals, and as a country.
We know that around half a million people are experiencing work-related stress in the UK. A recent poll by OnePoll found that 38% of people reported being stressed about work, with significant numbers reporting that they take work calls and check emails outside of working hours (59% and 55% respectively).
A 2017 Unison survey reported that 92% of people felt they had been under too much pressure at work at some point, and 67% considered excessive work demands as the source of their stress at work. Many cited long working hours and staff cuts, which led to individuals having to take on more work, as the cause of their stress. Excessive workloads can be extremely damaging, and workers are too often left to pay the cost with their own wellbeing and time. UK workers are working an average of 7.7 hours a week of unpaid overtime.
The impact on employees is huge. Beyond causing stress, workplaces can be particularly unwelcoming to those living with mental ill health. There are more people at work with mental health conditions than ever before, but each year 300,000 people with a long term mental health condition lose their job, and at a much higher rate than people living with physical health conditions. Confronting workplace stress needs to be a priority for the Government. We must ensure that employees experience supportive workplaces that promote mental wellbeing and enable staff to seek help safely, without risking adverse consequences and stigma.
That is why Community’s work is so vital. At the TUC Congress in Brighton in 2017, Roy Rickhuss pledged that Community would take its own action by offering more training to enable its representatives to spot mental health issues in the workplace. He also called on the Government to give mental health representatives statutory rights on a par with Health and Safety reps.
It is initiatives like this that will move us closer to a mentally healthy society. There are some fantastic examples of measures individual companies have taken to support their staff to cope with workplace stress, such as at the Barclays call-centre in my Wavertree constituency where employees are encouraged to take part in mindfulness activities. The charity Mind has a range of tools to tackle stress in the workplace. These include creating a Stress Awareness Space where people can feel safe talking about their feelings, running training courses, encouraging physical activity, and organising mindfulness sessions.
But for change to be lasting, it has to be structural. We must work towards an economy where all employees experience ‘good work’ that contributes positively to their mental wellbeing. Every workplace should be equipped with the awareness and tools to address and prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work, and to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive throughout their carer.
Mental Health Awareness Week is coming to an end, but our work pushing for such important changes to be enacted must not. The campaigning that trade unions like Community are leading on shows me that it won’t, and gives me hope for people working in all sectors across our country.