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Thriving at work: how to improve our mental health and productivity


October 26, 2017 David Halpern

Today sees the publication of the Thriving at Work report, commissioned by the Prime Minister. It was co-authored by Paul Farmer, CEO of MIND, and Lord Dennis Stevenson, businessman and entrepreneur, who has also been open about his own battles with mental health.

At a celebration hosted by Dennis yesterday evening to thank all those who helped on the report, Paul had a go at summarising the report in five numbers. Since it is a weighty report, it seemed a brave, but helpful thing to do. These were his five numbers, and corresponding takeaways:

  • 200… organisations that had contributed to the report. It was certainly striking to see the range of businesses, third sector organisations and government together in one room, as well as senior figures from across political divide. Mental health is an issue that touches so many people, whatever walk of life they are in.
  • 300,000… people fall out of work every year in the UK alone as a result of mental health problems.
  • £99bn… is the estimated annual cost to the economy.
  • 6 (or 10)… is their recommended ‘core standards’ they urge all businesses to adopt – with larger businesses taking on the 10.
  • 40… recommendations. The Prime Minister has indicated this morning she wants the NHS and civil service to be early implementers of the recommendations (employing 2m people themselves)

It’s a long list of recommendations. But it really boils down to two types of action.

First, supporting people who have or develop mental health issues at work. This means things like increasing mental health awareness, and increasing availability of digitally-based treatments – not least so that people can get help that fits around their working life. This support is clearly very important, and the angle most reported by the media today, but it’s really the second type of action that offers the biggest prospect of moving the dial on mental health.

This is about addressing the upstream causes, or triggers, of mental ill-health. One of the key findings in the well-being literature – not least drawing on the ‘day-reconstruction method’ championed by Danny Kahneman – is to identify the activities that people most and least enjoy in their lives. Top of the well-being list is no great surprise (hint: it involves your non-business partner, and probably dimmed lighting). But bottom of the list normally attracts more surprise: it’s time with your boss.

Of course, they will be lots of exceptions (I hope), but the fact is that for many people, it is the stress and dynamics of the workplace, and particular day-to-day behaviour of many managers – often inadvertently – that can be a major contributory factor in mental ill-health. More positively, supportive colleagues and peers can be a major contributor to better mental health, functioning as a buffer and support for life’s stresses. (See this nice recent discussion from the Harvard Business Review). Indeed, this finding echoes long-standing results of the ‘engagement literature’ and decades’ worth of workplace surveys: for example, the single strongest predictor of engagement at work is those who say they ‘have a best friend’ at work.

Fortunately, this opens the door to some very powerful ways to improve mental health at work. These include showing an authentic interest in your employees; giving positive and constructive responses to suggestions; creating room for autonomy and creativity; and fostering a mutually supportive workplace environment. We need to pursue these actions (urgently!) to address the upstream stresses that drive many of the hundreds of thousands who drop out of work every year for mental health related reasons. Existing projects like the Zinc programme, with a primary mission to tackle mental health, are well placed to build on today’s recommendations.

Crucially, these actions will also help to improve the UK’s workplace productivity.

With this in mind, if I had to choose just one of the 40 recommendations above all the others in the Stevenson/Farmer review to pursue, it would be their very first: ‘increasing employer transparency…generating a culture of measurement and will enable the development of voluntary ranking schemes’. Why? Imagine a world where the likes of Glassdoor or The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For have evolved into a robust TripAdvisor for prospective employees.

At its heart would be simple but standardised measures that capture work satisfaction, including whether you think of your boss as a friend… or not. This information should be a key factor in selecting an employer, but currently it’s what David Laibson would call a ‘shrouded attribute’. Firms that get better scores would attract better employees, and those that score less well would find it hit their bottom line as they had to pay more to attract and hold onto staff.

Could it happen voluntarily? I think so. Good firms – and government departments – should have a powerful incentive to publish their data in a standardised format. As this became more commonplace, prospective workers would draw their own conclusion about firms that declined to publish. In such a world, improving your management practices and being nicer to your employees – be it for reasons of mental health or productivity – would be aligned to your fundamental interests as a firm.

If nothing else came out of Stevenson/Farmer than this one development, it would be a game-changer for mental health and business in the UK.

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