HR & Management

Mind control: Remote working could aggravate mental health problems

11 min read

15 December 2017

Real Business finds out why entrepreneur Paul Finch believes mental health problems will get worse due to the rising trend of remote working.

Infrequent contact with teams and management could make it even harder for UK employees to voice their mental health problems. Having personally experienced such a situation, Paul Finch, CEO of A People Business and founder of charity Red Trouser Day, emphasises the need for better communication and a tailored support system.

Do you believe mental health problems in the workplace are getting worse, or is the UK making leeway?

At first glance, it does look like mental health problems in the workplace are becoming increasingly bad. There’s little doubt in my mind that workplaces today are more stressful than ever before. However, many employers are more aware of – and dealing with – the cornucopia of mental health issues that workers face, so this may also inflate the statistics!

Similarly, the continuing rise in remote working can also aggravate mental health problems. As human beings, we like communicating with others – if you’re stuck at home day in and day out, you can’t really talk to people. If you are having a problem, you need to pick up the phone or send a message – most people prefer to have this kind of private conversation face to face, so they simply don’t reveal it to anyone.

This is something I’ve experienced first-hand. When I was diagnosed with bowel cancer two years ago I didn’t have a real support network – that’s partly why my charity, Red Trouser Day, seeks to be all inclusive (you just need to wear red trousers to work) and to offer a sense of community.

In the same way, if you are the manager and someone is at work you can spot if they’re down and invite them to have a chat about it – you can’t do that if they are at home.

What do you believe are the benefits of investing in employees’ health and wellbeing?

Companies are concerned about productivity, and poor wellbeing will lead to lower engagement and lower productivity. To put it simply, a highly engaged (and well!) workforce delivers more. We all know that the most engaged are those who think and feel that their boss cares and that they are truly valued as employees.

There is a big difference between paying lip service to that claim and actually looking after people.

In what ways do you invest in your employees’ health and wellbeing?

As a director, you can’t be everywhere, all the time, so you have to create a culture of health and wellbeing, and empower managers within teams to look after staff. It is vital to ensure that management and employees understand what health and wellbeing means. There are two sources of stress – domestic (which managers can only be aware of) and work – which they can help resolve.

Employers need to heavily invest in understanding the problems not just the consequences of these problems. Too often money is simply thrown at assistance programmes without much thought into how to measure the outcome.

Companies sign deals with insurance firms to set up helplines that nobody uses and think the job is done. But I always look to put in a strategic programme that intertwines with the corporate missions and strategic vision.

If money was no object, what health and wellbeing perks/schemes would you like to have in place?

It is important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all – a nice bean bag is not the solution for everyone. If money were no object, I would like to invest in understanding problems to then invest in the right solutions to solve them, because every organisation is different. For example, having sophisticated leadership training around how to spot if someone is having a tough time and what to do about it.

Similarly, I’d like to invest in creating proper support networks. If you have people suffering from cancer, for instance, they will need support whilst having treatment. They need to take a lot of time out for this and people are worried about losing their job – having that support in place puts them at ease that their job is safe and helps them to overcome workplace issues whilst undergoing treatment.

While there is still a long way to go, attitudes are moving forward, Finch claims on the next page.

How would you advise SME bosses to address staff mental health?

Invest in your emotional intelligence and take time to understand where and why there is a problem. SMEs normally have a finger on the pulse as it’s easier to know staff individually. What has helped me personally in these environments, is understanding different personality types, recognising that people are different and require different approaches to supporting them.

Also, make sure to be sympathetic about issues, encouraging employees to open up – if you don’t know what’s happening, you can’t help.

Do you believe that mental health as a taboo subject persists?

Yes, though things are starting to open up. With more people suing for burnout and the rise in recent years of employees even committing suicide, bosses are starting to realise their duty of care. But the conversation is still not commonplace. It is also important to remember there are many aspects to mental health problems that need understanding.

All too often, mental health is perceived as a negative but in fact it can have positive aspects and provide people with particular talents. There is still a long way to go but attitudes are moving forward.

How important is emphasising support to staff?

In the last decade, there has been a sense that companies have come first, at the expense of everything else but you can’t drive your workforce through fear – staff need to feel they are valued. For many employers staff is their biggest cost – they are an asset and should be the number one priority.

Is it often the case that people don’t realise what their own mental health situation is?

The issue with mental health problems is that people can be embarrassed. It is not so much the case that they aren’t aware of the problem, but more not knowing what to do about it or how to handle it. If they do have an issue, they may feel they have to soldier on to keep their boss happy, not knowing who to turn to or what to do. This can have a serious impact.

What do you think can be done to improve understanding of mental health illnesses?

Start at the top. Managers and directors set an example for the rest of the company to follow, so management education is vital. Far more education is needed about what you should and shouldn’t do, how to spot employees suffering with mental health problems and to realise the impact you can have and that you can actually help.

What is the most common misconception?

Management are far more responsible for workplace stress than they think they are.
Traditionally, you had to fight your way to the top – if you didn’t think you were doing well, you were pushed to the side. This can create a culture of competition where others think “I have had to put up with a lot more than you – deal with it”

A bit of competitive pressure can be good but this is very different to stress. In a “dog eat dog” culture, there can be a reluctance to talk about mental health issues, because it can – quite wrongly – be seen as weakness. In fact, one in six people experience mental health issues at some stage in their lives, and leaving these hidden can simply make them worse.

Do you have any rituals to improve your mental health?

Physical activity helps me reduce stress and meditation plays a role too. The best help for me is pursuing a variety of different activities. Creating my own charity red Trouser Day, I have actually found cathartic. Through fundraising I am doing something I wouldn’t normally do and it is also an interesting challenge to mobilise teams to do something voluntarily.

I get a real sense of satisfaction from helping others and this has helped me through a life-threatening condition – helping is heartening. So, my top tips – do exercise, have fun and give back!