Why does the UK have a problem with workplace wellbeing?

The UK is in the midst of a renewed focus on building wellbeing at work. After decades of talking about work life balance, a decade of austerity, and now in the looming shadow of Brexit and automation, the UK is at a crossroads regarding issues around mental health, work and the effect that our cultural attitudes to work have on our lives as a whole.

Workplace in the UK

In March this year The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, told a briefing of FTSE100 companies "Work, as we all know, can at times be a source of great fulfilment, growth and fun, but also at times a significant source of stress – sometimes, if we are honest, to the point of its being overwhelming." He implored that those present begin to change the conversation on mental health at work, lauding their power to "effect long-lasting social change on mental health" by the example they set in their workplaces. "Without employers committed to changing attitudes," he warned, "we would be pushing a rock uphill – but, with you, we can and will change the way we think about mental health in this nation."

But why should wellbeing at work seem a Sisyphean task? Why, if the Netherlands can have a four day working week, is the UK unable with confidence to say that everyone’s mental health at work can be looked after? And, as importantly, why can’t the UK envisage a country where work doesn’t take so much out of you that there is nothing left for anything else?

It's hard to imagine things being different

The UK is often a country that is perplexing to people looking in from the outside. It’s a country where a kind of cheerful stoicism is best summed up by the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. It’s also a country with a long history of hard won trade union victories mixed with a love-hate relationship with work. This relationship is best summed up by a famous piece of early 70s graffiti sprayed along a London Tube line between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park for commuters to see: “SAME THING DAY AFTER DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINNER – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – TV – SLEEP – TUBE – WORK – HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE – ONE IN TEN GO MAD – ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP.”

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Annie Quick is the lead for think tank The New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) work on wellbeing and inequality. NEF is one of the think tanks in the UK working for alternatives to the current economic reality. The overall UK narrative for Quick has been one of “strivers versus skivers” and a “meritocratic ‘anyone can make it if they try’ myth.” This leads to working life where, for some, having any work is something to be glad of, making wellbeing an academic concern when the alternative is an increasingly punitive social security system.

The foundations need to be in place at work to achieve wellbeing

She suggests that sociological issues will be at play about who we value at work and who we don’t, with a different wellbeing offer extended to those whom private companies value most. For her, the UK’s debate about workplace wellbeing can be seen as a series of patches on a settlement that doesn’t deliver for people. “It's quite hard to imagine things that aren’t like how they are now. That's a basic challenge of democratic politics,” she told me. She sees a role for change at the level of government policy, as well as in individual workplaces. “I think where we are is where we are, because we've got a political system that does not see work as a social way of living together and doing what needs to be done and having useful and fulfilling lives. We see work as something that is part of the market and that you don't fiddle with too much and that should be left to corporations to dictate on their terms. You can't achieve wellbeing with extras, you need to have the foundations: good respectful relationships between managers and staff, security and a sense of having a say and being able to have some control over what you're working life looks like.”

Work employee The UK is lagging behind in workplace wellbeing

Wellbeing at work isn't just about HR

Quick told me that the UK’s pursuit of an economically liberal, marketised approach from the 1970s onwards has left the UK lagging behind some of its European neighbours. “The workplace wellbeing narrative in the UK has been very focused on very small light scale interventions that you can do within the workplace that are add-ons to our existing main working practices; rather than thinking of workplace wellbeing as about workers rights, about security, about working hours and about collective bargaining, we think of workplace wellbeing as like having some fruit in the kitchen and maybe a gym membership.” She views workplace wellbeing as being “much more structural and economic”, something that might only be achieved by stronger unions or more shared ownership, rather than “something we hive off to a personnel working group within HR.”

60% of employees have experienced a mental health problem due to work

The UK may have woken up to the need to help people at work once they are becoming unwell, but that has not translated into action to make sure that work does not have a detrimental effect on people’s lives. According to Business in the Community's National Mental Health at Work Wellbeing Survey in 2017, 60% of employees have experienced a mental health problem due to work or where work was a contributing factor at some point in their career. While 91% of managers agree that what they do affects the wellbeing of their staff, only 58% of employees feel that their line manager is genuinely concerned about their wellbeing. According to the survey, less than half of employees (44%) feel their organisation does well in supporting their mental health at work, and over a quarter (27%) of all employees believe that their organisation does not support those who experience mental health difficulties. Just over half of employees would not be comfortable talking to their line manager about a mental health issue.

Insecurity at work eats up your time

Quick says that many in the UK face increasing uncertainty and worse conditions at work. In many ways the UK lags behind other European countries in how much people feel safe and secure in their working life, which also has a strong bearing on how they feel at work. Says Quick: “Other countries either have higher minimum wages or more unions that are more embedded into wage setting within a more formal way. So lots of countries have better employment. A lot of European countries have better employment rights.” According to the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey carried out by NatCen, in 2017, 37% of those in the lowest income group worry “a great deal” or “to some extent” about losing their job, compared with 22% of those in the highest income group. Workers with low incomes are significantly less likely to know their short-term working hours relative to those in higher income households. Just under a third (29%) of those in the bottom income group do not know their working hours in the next month, more than four times the proportion of those in the highest income group.

In such conditions of insecurity, having sufficient wages to consider a four day week, or working fewer hours is out of the question. A lack of work life balance, for many seems a lesser evil than having not enough money to live on. Quick: “I think it's really unfortunate that it's been branded as an opportunity, in a slightly hippy way, we can all have more free time. Actually for a lot of people that free time is time spent caring, time to sleep in order to deliver all the other duties that people have, not just to their homes. Lots of that leisure time is valuable both for our personal wellbeing and to our families and equalising out domestic labour; but also in terms of participating in our communities, participating in our democracy.”

Will things change in the workplace?

Of course, Quick’s view is that of a researcher looking to alter the economic settlement under which people in the UK live. The picture she paints of a UK working culture that is out of kilter and unable to provide the basics of a well-balanced meaningful life for everyone, is based upon a vision of an economy where inequality between the richest and poorest is reduced. Wellbeing at work must be a reality for all, not just those we deem hardest to replace. For her, the answer is long term change. Even then, people will still need support, assistance and adaptation when experiencing mental illness or mental distress. According to UK anti mental health stigma campaign Time to Change, 1 in 6 British Workers are affected by conditions like anxiety, depression and stress every year. Other researchers of other political persuasions will describe other factors that might increase the wellbeing of the UK working population and will point out that people need support and help now, whether or not working life can be rebalanced. The two approaches should not be mutually exclusive.

On 11 September 2018, Prince William officially launched 'Mental Health at Work', a new online portal which will "change the way that we approach workplace mental health across the UK." It remains to be seen whether the task of improving the UK’s mental health and wellbeing at work will seem any less Sisyphean.

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Mark Brown is a guest blogger for Minddistrict, blogs at thenewmentalhealth.org and was the editor of mental health magazine One in Four.