Mental Health in the workplace
We have all seen how the pandemic has brought to light a greater need to focus on individual wellbeing. We have also been made aware of how stretched Mental Health Services are struggling to cope with ever-increasing demands on the service. Mental health problems are not new in the workplace and were all too common even before COVID-19 hit us. However, as we all return to the ‘current normal’, following the restrictions that have been placed on us through all the lockdowns, the likelihood is that mental ‘ill health’ will become an ever-growing concern.
‘A staggering 70 million workdays are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4 billion per year.’ Source: ‘Mental Health at Work’ (2021)
Of course, we also know that the need to focus on workplace wellbeing lies deeper than simply being a cost-saving exercise. Healthier environments in which workers have a greater sense of purpose and individuals are not only more socially engaged but feel valued and supported. They potentially lead to less stress since communication becomes more open. Union Health and Safety Reps, as well as Green Reps can work with members and managers to proactively promote healthier workplaces. By doing so, they can lessen stigma about mental illness so we can help build more of a social community. This also encourages collaboration and partnerships with other agencies that can enable people to become ‘well’ beings at work with less need to rely solely on prescribed medication and forced ‘time off work’.
The Medical Profession, as part of Primary Health Care initiatives, are already promoting the process of social prescribing in Wales and across the UK. They have invested in the employment of social link workers (different labels may apply to the role) who will facilitate access to a range of professionals, activities, and advice/information.
What do we mean by social prescribing?
Social prescribing is recognising that a person’s health is affected by a range of social, economic, and environmental factors. Helping to address any of these needs directly with the individual enables them to take a more active part in decision making. They are then more likely to be able to take control of their own wellness.
This video explains more about the process of social prescribing in Wales:
What about Green prescriptions?
There is increasing research evidence endorsed by organisations such as the mental health charity Mind highlighting how a ‘dose of nature’ enhances mental health and wellbeing. This has now led to more green social prescribing using natural woodlands, parks and other green spaces for outdoor exercise groups and social activities such as gardening in community farms.
But how much of a ‘dose of nature’ is needed, and in what form?
One of the earliest landmark psychological experiments ever conducted in relation to the benefits of nature after surgery found that even just having access to a natural scene from a hospital window enabled patients to have faster recovery. This lead to shorter hospital stays compared to a group of patients who only had views of a brick wall. (View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery, Science 1984, Roger Ulrich)
These studies have since been repeated many times with similar results.
More recent research (cited by Sue Williams, 2021 see: Natural Resources Wales / Mending minds - the benefits of a 'dose of nature' for mental health) based on a large-scale survey discovered that all it took was a total of over 2 hours per week in nature for an increase in self-reported good health and well-being. What is more, the benefits were the same whether from one single long visit or multiple shorter visits.
What are the implications for workplace environments?
To mention just a few:
- Green/environment and Health and Safety Union reps might liaise with social prescribing link workers in the area and invite them to talk to both employers and employees about their role.
- Workplaces might examine ways in which there could be greater direct/indirect connection with nature within and as part of any external aspects to buildings or on buildings themselves (living walls).
- Examine more flexible use of light, ventilation and space in buildings as well as use of rooms with images of nature that might be more ‘restorative’ and help ‘refocus’ attention in a more relaxed way.
- Link up with external agencies offering outdoor exercise, creative nature pursuits for both workers and their families.
- Open parts of outside areas for cultivation and use by local communities alongside workers.
Liz Middleton is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University and a Chartered Educational Psychologist with a keen interest in exploring ways to support Mental Health and Wellbeing. She is also an OpenLearn Champion for the Open University in Wales and has co-created a badged online course (BOC) on OpenLearn ‘Supporting Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing’.
Further study with The Open University:
More free learning on OpenLearn: