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Why support from co-workers is essential for workers’ health

Support from colleagues with work stress and mental health complaints

By Meike Bergwerff - Every year, stress takes its financial toll: stressed employees cost U.S. businesses roughly 300 billion dollar a year. The average burnout costing in the Netherlands is 60.000 euros per employee, according to the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research TNO. Yet many problems can be prevented or identified at an early stage. Contact with colleagues can make a crucial difference.

A healthy workplace is important in order for workers to perform properly. Yet despite increasing numbers of employers giving voice to this conviction, this cannot yet be seen in their actual actions, according to Deloitte in their report ‘A tipping point? Workplace mental health and wellbeing’ from March 2017. A healthy workplace requires more than just ergonomic office planning. It also includes provision for people’s mental well-being and health. Mental problems such as stress and burn-out, but also depression and anxiety, cause a lot of employee absenteeism.

Steps are being taken to give more attention to mental problems in the workplace, but there is still a long way to go. For example, a Deloitte poll in 2014 showed that 95% of the participants who had ever reported sick because of mental problems did not feel able to report the real reason. The stigmatisation of mental health problems is still a pivotal societal issue.

Social support good for one’s health

In the Netherlands, psychologist Geertje van Daalen has investigated how social support, work/home conflict (if stress at home disrupts work or vice versa) and well-being are interrelated. Social support helps to reduce stress, says Van Daalen, which is good for your health. What that support looks like can vary: women generally benefit from peer support, while men generally feel better when supported by a manager.

Social support helps to reduce stress

Finding a good work-life balance remains a challenge for many people. According to Van Daalen, emotional and practical support is particularly important in this regard. ‘Attention and care, a listening ear or practical help, such as a lift if your car is broken are all useful. But things like appreciation and feedback also help.’

Decreased performance due to mental health issues

Not only in the Netherlands mental health problems result in absenteeism from work. For example, in the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 employees have problems such as anxiety, depression or stress, according to Mind, a British organisation that is committed to providing accessible care to people with mental health problems. This has a knock-on affect to a companies’ performance.

Many people are afraid to raise this issue on the shop floor, as shown above by Deloitte’s research. But talking about it promotes understanding and self-confidence so others feel more comfortable talking about it when something is wrong, according to Mind. ‘If you think a colleague is having problems, ask them about it.’ Managers play an important role here. ‘They know their workers and should make people feel that it is OK to talk about potential problems.’ Signals that something may be wrong can range from a change in a person’s behaviour, to motivation or concentration problems, difficulty making choices or fatigue.

Talking more about mental health issues will result in people being quicker to pick up and respond to any issues.

Exchanging experiences

Van Daalen also believes that organisations should make more use of social relationships at work, partly because they can thus have a positive influence on the well-being of employees. ‘It's about simple things, like offering people an opportunity to exchange experiences. In this way people can discover that others are having the same problems, which can be a relief. It is about raising awareness, paying attention to signals, and asking what might help. You can’t help unless you first ask.’

New staff

Problems in the workplace can sometimes already be prevented by properly involving new employees in the team. Newcomers prefer to ask someone who is at the same level as them for information, someone with the same position. In many workplaces, a mentor is appointed, but they are often too far removed from daily practice to be truly supportive. In less than 10% of workplaces, new employees are assigned a buddy.

Immediately involve new employees well, e.g. through a buddy, so that they can also give and receive social support

According to Deloitte, it is not only employers who have an important role to play in this issue. Society and public authorities must promote cooperation between employers in order to develop research into the mental health of workers. For example, programmes can be developed to help this group. ‘Policy makers need to ensure that the focus is on this topic and encourage companies to work on it.’

Support your fellow workers

According to the experts, an open and caring working environment therefore has a positive effect on mental health and well-being. Social support can help to prevent or reduce stress. And by being able to talk about mental health at work, it is easier to identify problems and tackle them at an early stage, and for fellow workers to support each other practically or socially. Of course, employers play a crucial role in creating a healthy workplace, as does the government and society. But employees themselves can also take action, for example by making stress and mental problems a topic of discussion within the team. In this way, you can offer each other social support. Because just working hard, looking away or hoping it will pass won’t produce better results. Looking out for each other, on the other hand, will.

Suggested reading

There is a lot of good information on social support around mental health issues and stress in the workplace. For example, see: