Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Keeping up the good work beyond World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Day – an opportunity for us to show our support for better mental health, and consider what we can do to look after both ourselves and others. The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is workplace wellbeing – a theme close to my heart, both from personal experience and as a recurring theme in my research, even before I found myself at Money and Mental Health.

Why is workplace wellbeing important?

Most of us spend a significant chunk of our adult lives at work, and what goes in the office (or factory, cafe, classroom, on the ward or anywhere else) can have a dramatic impact on our mental health. Feeling like we’re being asked to do too much, don’t have control over our work or that our views are unheard can undermine self-worth and lead to poorer mental health.

It is great to see many employers taking the lead to support the wellbeing of their employees at work. The introduction of Mental Health First Aid helps people understand how to support colleagues who may be experiencing mental health problems, and to direct them towards the right support. Resilience programmes, promoting social activities and volunteering, and, crucially, good management can all help to make workplaces positive places to be.

However many other things in life will also impact on our mental health – including our relationships, our housing situation, and whether we feel financially secure. It is very difficult to stop problems in these other areas of our lives creeping into the workplace, no matter how hard we might try to hide them.

Striking a balance

Given this, it’s a good idea for workplaces to consider how they can tackle the risk factors to poor mental health, as well as making sure they’re well-placed to respond when employees do experience difficulties. This is a tricky balancing act – most of us, while wanting our employers to view us as human beings, don’t necessarily want them digging into our private lives.

There are some elements of our lives, however, where employers can have a positive impact. Finances are one such area. All of us have a financial relationship with our employer – because, for most of us, they’re an important source of income.

Financial stress at work

Our research has demonstrated that a quarter of employees are experiencing financial insecurity, with very low savings and existing debt meaning a simple unexpected expense can cause significant distress.  

As we were investigating the issues for our report Overstretched, Overdrawn, Underserved, we heard from many members of our Research Community how their financial worries left them distracted and struggling to keep up with targets at work, or, working significant overtime in a desperate bid to bring in enough money to keep the bailiffs at bay. Others talked about the horrible experience of having to take calls from creditors at their desk, and of the way they felt colleagues would see their financial problems as undermining their professional abilities. Some of the simplest symptoms of money worries were the most distressing – being unable to contribute when a charity collection was passed around or to buy a round in the pub left people feeling isolated, and aggravated mental health problems significantly.

“I was not considered a team player because I did not join in sweepstakes, buy cakes, contribute to birthday presents.”

How can employers help?

A simple way to support employees’ mental health would be to address these risk factors which, while not directly related to our work, have a huge impact on our wellbeing. Employers already have a role in supporting our financial wellbeing – mostly through offering workplace pensions. Extending this to offer short-term savings products or cheaper credit through payroll could help employees find the right tools to deal with their financial vulnerabilities. Many people we talked to – including some of those in our focus groups – also just don’t know where to find the brilliant free debt advice which is available to everyone in the UK from organisations like Citizens Advice, StepChange and National Debtline.  

“If only I had known the help that was available, some of which I later received. But should I have known earlier, maybe I would have kept my job, and my home, etc. I will always wonder.”

Simple signposting by employers, and steps to make it okay to talk about money at work – for example, training for managers and offering budgeting apps and tools through payroll, could all help people to avoid financial difficulties and the mental health problems which might accompany them.

This World Mental Health Day, I hope that as well thinking about ways they can support mental health in the workplace, employers will think about the other ways they can help too.