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Winter of discontent

For many this has been a winter of discontent and especially for those with mental health problems. There is guidance out there for employers to ensure they can support employees and encourage openness and dialogue. Sarah Gibbons-Cook and Stephanie Spicer write.

Mental health has routinely struggled to gain the consideration it deserves and since 2020, the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for people of all ages, in schools, colleges and in the workplace.

When writing on the economy many national newspapers are claiming the phrase ‘winter of discontent’ and there are parallels to when the phrase was used to describe the winter of 1978/79 when the UK was beset by cold weather and striking workers. And here we are this winter facing – well, slightly warmer weather than we have had – but still strikes and threatened strikes.

It seems especially cruel that these strikes, these grievances on the part of many workers – some financial, some practical in how lack of resources impact on how they can do their jobs – has forced them to, in turn, impact the first Christmas and New Year when we should have been free to travel and associate, after the restrictions of the pandemic.

It is well accepted that COVID-19 had an impact on the mental health of many. One might hope as we steer a course away from the worst ravages of the pandemic (notwithstanding those with long-COVID symptoms and grieving the loss of loved ones) that some equilibrium will return in how we work and how we play.

While a pandemic, a cost-of-living crisis and a war in Europe may all have meant many folk have found themselves struggling, there have always been mental health problems for individuals – at home and in the workplace and for myriad other reasons.

For employers, mental well-being in the workplace is being talked about more. The inference of course is that ‘mental health’ is a problem and that running alongside it is ‘mental healthy’. This, ie, the acknowledgement of mental health problems is a good thing but that doesn’t mean it is easy to recognise or deal with it.  The business cost of poor mental health amongst employees is increasing and in 2022 the cost for UK employers rose to £56 billion, according to Deloitte.

So without putting it down to a financial cost issue alone (although if it works to get it addressed, so be it) it needs to be recognised that ‘mental health problems are no longer ones we pretend do not exist or are conditions to be ashamed of or scared of.  They are to be talked about. 

For the employer there has to be a discussion of what resources to put in place for employees. Most employers with human resources departments will have these covered, which is not to say it is easy for the average line manager to spot a team member struggling – or even for that team member to.

There are many sources of advice from charities and employer/employee institutions.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has much to offer on wellbeing at work and understanding ‘the links between work, health and wellbeing, and the role of stakeholders in adopting an organisational approach to employee wellbeing.

And the Health and Safety Executive in its Management Standards highlights key areas of work design ‘that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates’:

  • Demands –issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – eg the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – eg promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.

The HSE also provides guidance for employees in how to look after themselves at work.

 ‘Our research confirms that a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers,’ says the charity Mind.

Often, Shakespeare is misquoted out of context. But when he had Richard II speaking of “the winter of our discontent” – the follow through was that it was “made glorious summer” (by an end to war). The time ahead was (broadly) looking good.

May we wassail and hope for that end to war – and to all battles – and as a country and as individuals ensure there is support and contentment for all.  

Sarah Gibbons-Cook is director and Stephanie Spicer, head of content at Quill

Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash