Mental health: supporting employees

To coincide with World Mental Health Day, Rob Alder, head of business development at AAT, offers tips on how to identify and help to reduce stress in employees

Poor mental health is affecting more and more of us; research has shown that one in three sick notes issued by GPs are now given for mental health problems. One in four people will experience issues with mental health in the workplace and this is being recognised on this year’s World Mental Health Day, with the theme focusing on young people and mental health in a changing world.

While accountancy is a fantastic industry to work in, finance professionals are not immune to stress, with 43% of those who responded to an Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) survey saying they have suffered from stress because of work. In accounting, as in many other industries, there can be occasional long hours and pressure to meet deadlines, so it is not surprising that many can sometimes find the going tough. For someone who is struggling with mental health issues, it may be hard to talk to anyone about it, especially at work.

For those in a management position, however, it is important to know how to spot the signs that someone in the team might be struggling, especially in light of The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which requires employers to take reasonable steps to look after employees’ mental health and welfare.

Reasons for stress

Research from Bupa has found that a third of line managers would struggle to identify if staff had mental health issues. Things that may cause an employee to feel stressed at work include a heavy workload or targets - or conversely, a workload and targets that are too light. Long working hours, ineffective equipment or tools, and significant change or uncertainty can contribute, as can interpersonal conflicts with others, including bullying and harassment.

People struggling at work could be suffering from one or several of these issues. For accountants especially, the culture of the organisation they work for can contribute to how stressed they are.

According to Henry Cooper, owner of Birch Cooper accounting practice: ‘Some businesses have a macho culture where you are supposed to be the first person in and the last person out, which can increase pressure.’

How to spot the signs

Nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, so it is no wonder that many people find it a tough subject to broach. Employees may not communicate that they are struggling because they are nervous of how they may be perceived, or because they do not know how to start the conversation. It may start affecting performance at work however, and if they have not told their manager about it, they may not understand why their performance has started to slip. Five signs that an employee may be struggling are:

  • Seeming less able to concentrate or are less productive than usual
  • Becoming more sensitive to what other people say, or to their behaviour, and occasionally overreacting
  • Taking more time off work than usual
  • Behaving in a way that is different from how they usually behave
  • Starting to have difficult relationships with others at work

AAT’s study found that only a quarter of accounting professionals (25%) would feel most comfortable talking to their line manager if they were feeling stressed, so being able to spot any of these signs is very important.

How to help reduce stress

If it has been established that an employee is suffering from stress caused by work and needs help, a manager then needs to look at what they might be able to do. Measures that could be used to reduce workplace stress include:

  • Giving the employee new learning and development opportunities
  • Having employee counselling services
  • Carrying out workplace stress audits
  • Having grievance and disciplinary procedures
  • Having a stress at work policy          

Employers and managers need to understand their responsibilities to employees under the law. More than half of business leaders have been approached by staff with mental health issues but just 14% of companies have a formal policy in place to deal with the problem.

‘Take a sympathetic approach,’ Henry Cooper says. ‘With any issue like that, these things do not show on the surface. Have an open atmosphere so staff feel comfortable to talk.’

Annie Donovan, Chief Executive of KIM Inspire, a non-profit organisation that aims to provide routes to emotional well-being through a variety of activities and group work, adds: ‘Workplaces that are healthy and happy and positive are obviously going to result in happier and more positive staff.’

‘If somebody is really struggling, what are the underlying causes? What as a manager could you do to make sure that those problems are worked through, and that the person feels that they are getting a sense of achievement and feeling good about themselves when they’re coming to work?’

‘As a mental health charity, we would always suggest that just talking about it is the most important thing, for staff and management. Just be open about it, if somebody’s bringing a concern, you give them that space to talk about it, and to look at what can be put in place to help.’

About the author

Rob Alder is head of business development at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT)

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