Promoting wellbeing in the workplace

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, OT  heard from wellbeing experts about burnout and supporting mental health in work

stress chart
Getty/Alexey Yaremenko
Mental health in the workplace has been put in the spotlight in recent weeks after the World Health Organization (WHO) released guidance on the subject.

The organisation noted that an estimated 12 billion work days are lost annually due to depression and anxiety, costing the global economy nearly US$1 trillion (approximately £903 billion).

In the run-up to World Mental Health Day (10 October), OT reached out to wellbeing professionals and experts to find out more about the importance of wellbeing in the workplace and the risks of burnout.

The challenges of practice

“I think we need to acknowledge that healthcare professionals need our support, and they need that support now,” optometrist and life coach, Sheena Tanna-Shah, told OT.

Tanna-Shah, who has been running CPD workshops around wellbeing and mindset since January, told OT that in speaking to optometrists over the last few months, she has noticed a need for more wellbeing resources.

Optometrists highlighted issues with workload and work-life balance, or were facing particularly busy practices.

This comes as the profession recovers from two years of disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though 2022 has not faced the lockdowns that prevailed in 2020 and 2021, it is natural that the emotions and stresses of operating through that difficult period might continue.

“We can expect that we should ‘snap back,’” Tanna-Shah said. “But there was so much we had to take on and those feelings don’t disappear. If we don’t talk about it, we’re just pushing it under the carpet, and those feelings layer up.”

“People have been finding that hard,” she added.

Add to these residual feelings an increased volume of patients in practice, and changes to the profession like the new CPD schedule introduced at the start of 2022, and adjustments are constantly being made by optometrists.

Tanna-Shah explained: “It can feel a very isolating profession at times. If you are in a busy practice and don’t have the space to talk to somebody, how do you release that?”

Research by Health and Safety at Work found eight million workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020–21 (based on self-reports from the Labour Force Survey of respondents who had worked in the previous 12 months).

Reflecting on this, Tanna-Shah highlighted the need for support and to raise awareness “that we are struggling.”

The General Optical Council (GOC) Registrant Workforce and Perceptions Survey 2022 found that, while the majority of respondents were satisfied in their role (62%), there were “significant” variations.

Steve Brooker, director of regulatory strategy at the GOC, noted of the results: “clearly there remain challenges for the sector to tackle, with significant minorities of respondents finding it difficult to cope with workloads and provide patients with a sufficient level of care.”

The survey, carried out between March and April 2022 found 41% of respondents felt unable to cope with their workload (up from 37% in 2021).

Speaking to OT, Andrew Berrie, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, suggested that this figure was “concerning but not surprising,” explaining: “Problems like stress, anxiety and depression are common across all workplaces, regardless of size or sector.”

“However, there are some factors that are often mentioned as potential causes of poor mental health at work, including excessive, unmanageable workload, unrealistic expectations or deadlines, and poor relationships with customers or clients and colleagues, especially managers,” Berrie shared.

A survey by Mind in 2020–21 of over 40,000 staff working across 114 organisations participating in the Workplace Wellbeing Index, found that two in five (41%) felt their mental health had worsened during the pandemic.

“For many staff, the pace of progress when it comes to promoting good mental health has been frustratingly slow,” Berrie told OT.

Burnout in healthcare

A study published in BJPsych Open, and funded by Barts Charity, found that healthcare professionals working during the COVID-19 pandemic were up to 3.3 times more likely to be burned out compared to non-healthcare professionals, despite similar rates of mental health.

The researchers, from Queen Mary University of London, also found that healthcare professionals who dealt directly with patients were more likely to be burned out than those who did not.

A total of 1574 healthcare professionals and 147 non-healthcare professionals were surveyed at three phases in 2020: a period between July to September, six weeks later, and then four months later.

Asked about the risk of burnout over time, Dr Ajay Gupta, study author and senior clinical lecturer at Queen Mary and honorary consultant in clinical pharmacology and cardiovascular medicine, told OT that over the six-month period of the study, issues related to burnout appeared to increase, suggesting that burnout and emotional exhaustion was likely to be “much more than we reported, given that the pandemic lasted for a further, substantial period.”

Burnout carries a consequence for teams in terms of resourcing and staffing, as well as having personal effects on the individual.

Gupta suggested that, even as pandemic pressures ease, and burnout rates potentially reduce, “the long-term effect of burnout (emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation) would accrue on service delivery and also individual health.”

Looking ahead, he explained that the researchers are concerned that this significant period of stress and worsening lifestyle factors, “may have long-term adverse impacts on both physical and mental wellbeing of healthcare professionals and non-healthcare professionals alike.” The researchers are seeking funding for a further study in this area.

Making wellbeing a priority

The WHO guidance released in September recognises the important role that poor wellbeing can have on an individual’s health, but also their productivity. 

The guidelines recommend actions that employers can take to tackle risks to mental health, such as heavy workloads, negative behaviours, and other factors that create distress at work.

For the first time, WHO recommended manager training, to help build their capacity to prevent stressful work environments and respond to workers in distress.

Releasing the guidance in September, WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said: “It’s time to focus on the detrimental effect work can have on our mental health.”

Mind’s Berrie noted that, alongside legal duties to protect and promote good mental health under the Equality Act 2010 and Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers who invest in the wellbeing of their staff also report that their employees are more productive and loyal and less likely to take time off unwell.

“Promoting mental health makes financial sense, with an average return of £5.30 for every £1 invested in wellbeing initiatives, according to Deloitte UK,” Berrie said.

“Measures need not be large or expensive and should be tailored to the needs of the workforce, as captured by regular anonymous surveys,” he added.

For example, many mental health resources are available for free from trusted websites such as Mind or Mental Health at Work.

“Healthcare staff can also access 24-hour emotional support from Our Frontline, which was set up in April 2020 specifically to support our fantastic key workers who put their own health, safety and wellbeing at risk in order to keep everyone else as well as possible and the country running,” Berrie shared.

Employers could also consider signing up to Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index or Mental Health at Work Commitment.

Tanna-Shah illustrated that training around wellbeing is important, as well as providing time for regular check-ins with managers.

“It’s about having things in place so that if people are struggling, they know who to speak to, where to go, and how to do it,” she said.

Acknowledging that all teams are different, Tanna-Shah recommended naming a ‘wellbeing promoter’ amongst the team – a person that staff can talk to.

“The team needs to be aware that if they aren’t having a good day, or if something is going on in their personal life, it matters and is valid. It’s okay to feel these things, but let’s do something about it.”