The theme for mental health awareness week 2023 is anxiety and there is a good reason why this has been chosen. In recent years, thanks to the work of organizations like the Mental Health Foundation, the stigma surrounding mental health has lessened and there is more of an acceptance of the need to actively take care of ourselves and those around us. But this relies on us all to keep shining a light on the importance and normality of needing to invest in good mental health.
As a point of reflection we looked at some of the things that have worked well for our organization and we spoke to some of the team who were happy to offer insights on what can be a sensitive and personal topic.
Anxiety and its Impacts
Employers have an important role to play in supporting good mental health, and this year’s theme of anxiety is one that most of us will be able to identify with to a greater or lesser degree. The Mental Health Foundation surveyed 6,000 UK adults in March of 2023 asking about anxiety and its impacts, and the results show that anxiety is incredibly common, nearly three-quarters of the population (73%) reported feeling anxious within the last fortnight, with one in five people (20%) reporting that they felt anxious most or all of the time.
Anxiety is when the body’s natural fight or flight responses are triggered and are an important part of keeping us safe, but they can become problematic if they persist, become overwhelming or consistently trigger in everyday situations, preventing us from living as we want or need. The pandemic increased anxiety levels in the population and the survey suggest that they have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. Since then, factors like the cost-of-living crisis are driving higher levels of anxiety for many people, particularly those in the 35-64 year old age bracket who stated finances as a key concern.
We all employ coping methods for anxiety, and these vary between those that are healthy and constructive, to things that can have a detrimental impact on us in their own right relying on substances like alcohol or nicotine, over or under eating, or making other unhealthy choices.
Anxiety can cause us to avoid the things that trigger us in a way that becomes disruptive or can lead to other compulsive or self-destructive behaviors, impact self-esteem or make sufferers feel like they are reliant on medications when they would prefer not to be. To quote a colleague around their personal experience with anti-anxiety medication “They were helpful, but seemed to move my personal perspective back a few feet, so it’s like I’m driving my mind, body, and emotions from behind a firewall.”
Employers and Mental Health
So, what can workplaces do to help to ease anxiety for their teams? ‘Work’ in itself was stated as a source of anxiety for 29% of people surveyed, second only to concerns around finances. But there are many ways that employers can help to promote healthier, happier workplaces, creating accepting and tolerant environments, allowing, and encouraging the ability to invest time in healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, reflection time, spending time in nature, connecting with people or simply getting good quality sleep or rest. Flexible working, rest days, community days and ensuring team members are not pressured to work excessively out-of-hours are all contributions that employers can make to better work-life balance.
The Mental Health Foundation report suggested there are specific groups who were more likely to be feeling anxious, including single parents, LGBTQ+ people, carers, young people, ethnic minorities and those suffering with long term health issues. By being aware and responsive to the needs of these groups, employers can help to ease the load.
This might be through initiatives such as flexible working to allow people to accommodate the other demands are placed upon them or non-prescriptive dress codes that allow people to be comfortable. Another powerful factor could be flexibility and support around important observances when team members may wish to book time off, be required to fast, or accommodate additional activities in their day.
Aside from helping to take the pressure off external commitments, simply creating an environment where all employees feel respected and acknowledged is critical, as is being intolerant to bullying or inappropriate practices that may ostracize team members. Well implemented diversity and equality initiatives and spokespeople can be a good first step to helping people feel represented in the workplace.
As people feel financial pressures, regular salary reviews, support accessing practical advice, promoting and communicating money saving tips and advice as a community and helping team members to minimize commuting costs are all practical ways in which employers can help ease the pressures on their teams.
Some companies even implement more direct schemes like Employee Assistance Programs or Company Doctors to assist their teams in getting access to medical assistance that might be hard to access or make them feel exposed for missing work. Again to quote a colleague, “Getting access to a GP through work has meant that my anxiety feels more under control than it has in years.”
The Stigma Remains
Sadly, although as a culture we are becoming more used to speaking about our mental health, it is still a scary subject for many sufferers as they have in the past experienced ‘shaming’ and are reluctant to speak up as a result of having been dismissed, ridiculed, laughed at, deemed ‘weak’ – including in a gendered way – or ignored. This is still prevalent with 55% of respondents agreeing with the statement “I don’t think people can tell when I am feeling anxious”.
So, try to breed a culture that accepts that someone who talks openly about their anxiety is being exceptionally brave and should be afforded the respect that goes with this. Top tips from an anxiety sufferer:
- Listen carefully, don’t judge.
- Don’t defend/dismiss whatever has caused the anxiety response.
- Don’t assume you understand, or tell them what they need.
- If anxiety hits, be patient, allow them time to think/respond.
- Design systems and processes around people, not the other way around.
Finally, connecting and encouraging others to connect with those around them and to recognize and be sensitive to signs that colleagues might be experiencing anxiety is valuable in itself. Signs vary for individuals but can include physical symptoms like headaches, breathlessness, sweating or shaking; psychological factors like difficulty sleeping or concentration, inability to relax or tearfulness; or changes in behavior like missing work.
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Article by Helen Hopkins - 17 May 2023