Recent research has shown that mental health issues are the number one cause of sickness days in UK workplaces. The concept of the ‘duvet day’, now better known as a ‘personal day’, is endemic across all sectors and, beyond the impact on productivity, employers must honour a duty of care to their employees.

Of course, anxiety is not the only mental health issue that is affecting the UK workforce, but it’s intrinsically linked with the stress many of us feel. By definition, anxiety is when people feel worried, tense or afraid about things that are either about to happen or we think could happen in the future. It is common to feel anxious at one point or another, in fact stress can even help people to take action, solve issues and perform at their best. However, too much sustained stress can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder – more than average levels of anxiety – sometimes so much so that it becomes highly debilitating.
In the UK, 13.7 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression, at a cost of £28.3 billion to UK Plc. This level of workplace absence is hardly surprising when contextualised by the percentage of professionals who say they experience moderate to high levels of stress (76%) induced by work – with workload commonly cited as a key driver of this. Heavy workloads can necessitate working outside of office hours and lead employees to feel that work is more important than family or personal time. They want to work to live, not live to work.

Even when overtime can be avoided, stress can have wider physiological impacts including tiredness, aches and pains, headaches, trouble sleeping or – in some cases – turning to substances such as alcohol to alleviate symptoms.

It’s no secret that discussions of mental health, whilst improving, remain a taboo subject in many environments. Recent figures suggest nearly two thirds (60.2%) of professionals would be embarrassed disclosing information about the state of their mental health to their employer. And no wonder, given the well-known cost to productivity and uplift in sickness days highlighted above. This is why employers need to clearly demonstrate a duty of care and the human side of their HR personnel and processes.

First and foremost, those who are suffering from anxiety regularly, with it impacting day-to-day life, need to be encouraged to seek advice from a trained professional, such as a GP. Health professionals will be able to identify if the anxiety can be classified as a specific anxiety disorder and recommend a treatment approach. This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective methods of dealing with anxiety symptoms, allowing people to gain an understanding of the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviours whilst offering practical steps to take to tackle anxiety.
At a business level, the ethos of humanity and care must run from top-to-bottom of an organisation. HR Directors need to play a role in increasing understanding of mental health problems and how to support those experiencing difficulties. Through participation in, and wide promotion of, training about mental health problems, they can, themselves, gain greater confidence in dealing with employees’ mental health and set a clear example of openness and empathy in their workplace. With increased knowledge and understanding, HR Directors and managers can make great strides in appropriately managing mental health issues in the workplace.

Managers can have a big impact on their team’s stress levels and hence it is vital that they have appropriate training and knowledge about mental health issues. It can also be important for managers to implement regular mental health breaks or discussions in the workplace, as well as managing workloads to ensure employees get adequate time to ‘decompress’ and spend quality time caring for themselves and their families. Any measures put in place to reduce an individual’s stress and anxiety must be done discreetly and on the employee’s terms. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when dealing with mental health and managers should not use one individual’s experience as a case study for others.

Finally, at a macro level, organisations can invest in the provision of evidence-based support services such as digital CBT courses. Digital CBT is self-paced training which has proven effectiveness for preventing and reducing symptoms of anxiety. CBT can also be delivered in person by therapists, for example through Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which provide confidential counselling services for employees. Over the long term, decreased productivity through sickness or workplace performance can be tackled through investment in support services for employees. But a commitment to this kind of support must also demonstrate a duty of care and understanding, and not just eyes on the bottom line, in order to really reach those who need it most.