• Analysis
  • November 28, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 0

A high-pressure public sector is bad for mental health. Can government help?

Half of UK public sector workers have taken time off for their mental health

When James Cattell, a delivery manager at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told colleagues about his bipolar affective disorder, he never expected the outpouring of support that followed.

His line manager was lenient about time off and colleagues “bent over backwards” to help. Thanks to their support, the way Cattell thinks about his mental health has changed immeasurably in the last few years.

“I’m now in an organisation that talks about mental health — when I was working in financial services in my twenties, the culture was ‘Oh, just get on with your job. We’ve got money to make’,” he said. “It’s a blessing to work in an organisation where it’s okay to talk about it.”

Recent news about British civil servants’ mental health paints a bleak picture. Earlier this month, Jonathan Jones, the UK’s wellbeing champion — a position created to promote better mental health in government — reported higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness among Whitehall staff in 2017, compared with 2016.

And a report by mental health charity Mind found that nearly half of all public sector workers have had to take time off because of their mental health, compared to a third in the private sector.

Are civil servants unhappier — or getting better at talking about mental health?

Many have attributed civil servants’ growing anxiety to stressful working conditions under austerity and Brexit.

“People do difficult jobs in times of austerity,” said Faye McGuinness, head of workplace wellbeing programs at Mind. “Shift patterns and a lack of management support play a large role. When that stress is ongoing, it continuously affects day-to-day life, and can develop into serious mental health problems.”

But both McGuinness and Cattell suggested that these statistics could in fact reflect a wider shift in government: public servants are getting more comfortable opening up about mental health, thanks to two years of reforms.

In 2017, a report titled Thriving at Work: a Review of Mental Health and Employers was released by the UK government. Commissioned by the prime minister, the report reviewed the mental health of British workers across the private and public sector, and delivered a whopping reality check about the scale of the problem: it found that 300,000 people leave their jobs due to mental illness every year, costing employers £42 billion ($54 billion) annually.

“Even though Defra was probably the department hit hardest by Brexit, we’ve managed to break the stigma around mental health”

McGuinness works with the Work and Health Unit, an agency sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care, that works across government to develop solutions that benefit people with physical and mental conditions.

Mind reviews and advises central government on its progress against the 40 recommendations for employers laid out in Thriving at Work. These include creating and implementing a plan to help employees manage their mental health at work, routinely monitoring their wellbeing and ensuring mental health is spoken about openly in the workplace.

The ways these recommendations are adopted are at the discretion of individual organisations across the civil service. In practice, it can mean anything from giving employees struggling with mental health extra days off work, to helping them access therapy, to participating in a civil service-wide program that has trained over 2,000 officials as “mental health first-aiders”. Through the program, public servants learn to recognise early symptoms and help those struggling through mental health problems.

Jones reported earlier this month that most government departments — which rate themselves against the Thriving at Work standards — met the majority of the benchmarks, and planned to meet all of them within the next six to 12 months.

How departments are changing

Cattell has experienced the effects of these changes firsthand at Defra.

The department has implemented a buddy system, where staff are paired with colleagues with whom they can discuss problems they face in life and at work. Staff are encouraged to use the Pomodoro technique, a time management tool that builds regular breaks into daily work. And massage therapists even regularly come to the building, to help employees ease stress.

Defra also hosted the UK’s first “unconference” — an informal meeting that eschews the rigidly scheduled programs typical of traditional conferences  — devoted entirely to mental health. Public servants were given an open forum to discuss wellbeing and health, where anyone could pitch an idea they wanted the group to discuss.

“I’ve heard from several people that some employers are simply paying lip service”

“Even though Defra was probably the department hit hardest by Brexit, we’ve managed to break the stigma around mental health. We’re open and talking about this more. People are stepping up,” said Cattell.

Overall, the UK government is “heading in the right direction” when it comes to supporting employees’ mental health, said McGuinness.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done. “I’ve heard from several people that some employers are simply paying lip service or using tokenism when it comes to addressing mental health problems,” she said.

“We need to encourage employees to be more transparent, get senior level buy-in to train line managers about mental health and have all organisations publicly report how they’re supporting staff.” —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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