Owen Farrell is a hard man. As hard as granite, and he’s the England rugby captain.
But he has decided to hand back his captaincy of his national team in order to protect his mental health. Speaking of the pressures of playing for your country, he said:
“You are dealing with people, with human beings.” and that he “made the decision to take a break from international rugby in order to prioritise my and my family’s mental wellbeing”.
Apart from a couple of ankle injuries and a few matches missed through suspension, Farrell has been playing for and leading England at full tilt pretty much since his debut in 2012. His decision is similar to the English cricket captain, Ben Stokes, who took an indefinite break from playing the game, in 2021. For sports fans, it is alarming that two leaders of their national sides, who play with such an unbreakable will, have found it necessary to take their leave from their respective games.
If these giants of sport can succumb to the pressure and feel the need to protect their mental wellbeing, what about us mere mortals?
According to respected international medical journal, the Lancet, prior to 2020, mental disorders were the leading causes of the global health-related burden, with depressive and anxiety disorders being top contributors to this load. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic created an environment where many determinants of poor mental health were exacerbated.
The WHO (World Health Organisation), says that it is increasingly recognised that the mental health of employees is a key determinant in their overall health and that poor mental health and stressors in the workplace can lead to a range of physical illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions. In addition, poor mental health can also lead to burnout among employees, seriously affecting their ability to contribute meaningfully in both their personal and professional lives.
Data from around the world indicate that mental health problems are a cause of employees dropping out of work. In the Netherlands, around 58% of work-related disabilities are related to mental health. In the UK, it is estimated that around 30–40% of sickness absence is attributable to some form of mental illness. Mental health problems have an impact on employers and businesses through increased absenteeism, a negative impact on productivity and profits, as well as an increase in costs to deal with the issue. In addition, they impact employee morale adversely.
Work-related stress is a major cause of occupational ill health, poor productivity and human error. This means increased sickness absences, high staff turnover poor performance in the organisation and a possible increase in accidents due to human error. Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed upon them. There is a clear distinction between pressure, which can be a motivating factor, and stress, which can occur when this pressure becomes excessive.
Some occupations are at more risk of mental health problems than others and studies show higher stress levels correlate with a higher risk for mental ill health.
The most common reason for office stress is dealing with a difficult boss and this could be solved with improved communication skills. Having an open, honest conversation could make a huge difference. Sometimes, the boss may set unreal targets, and honest discussion can bring out realistic deadlines that can actually be met. Another reason could be difficult colleagues and co-workers. Dealing with a difficult co-worker can be tricky, especially if their performance is pitted against oneself. This again can hopefully be resolved by an amicable discussion, concluded by a mutual agreement.
Unrealistic expectations, especially in a time of corporate reorganisations, can be a tremendous source of stress and suffering. Increased workload, excessively long work hours and intense pressure to constantly perform at peak levels for the same pay can actually leave an employee physically and emotionally drained. Excessive travel and too much time away from family also contribute to an employee’s stressors.
Other job stressors include uncomfortable working conditions, job overload, lack of control over the work process and sheer monotony. Decreasing work role ambiguity can reduce job strain and work-related psychological disorders including anxiety disorders.
The WHO says companies should address mental wellness in the workplace through a clearly articulated workplace policy. Below is a prototype policy, outlining employee wellness as a strategic priority, showing a company’s potential vision, values, principles and objectives in the area of mental health:
(Company’s name) is committed to ensuring the health and well-being of employees in the workplace. We will assess and respond quickly to the needs of employees with mental health problems.
Values and principles
Employees are our most valuable asset. We will provide adequate support services to employees to benefit from counselling and other interventions to ensure positive mental health.
We will ensure that employees have access to treatment for mental health problems where needed.
We will periodically assess workplace stress through appropriate surveys conducted ethically.
Based on our internal workplace stress surveys, we will initiate programs to cover the following:
- information and awareness campaigns;
- employee and manager training;
- promoting mental health through our ‘agile working’ initiative;
- addressing harassment at the workplace;
- specific interventions for identified stressors at the workplace;
- training in resilience techniques and coping strategies;
- specifically address the prevention, identification and management of depression and anxiety at the workplace;
- supporting individuals with mental health problems; and
- recruitment and retention practices which do not discriminate against people with mental health problems.
Objectives of the policy
We will evaluate and control organisational factors that could potentially contribute to work-related stress.
We will implement stress and burn-out prevention and management programs for employees at risk as well as early detection and support programs to deal with alcohol or mental health problems once they have occurred to ensure that an employee can contribute meaningfully to himself, his family and at the workplace.
We seek to enhance the productivity of the business by providing adequate support to employees following any mental health deviations.
We will minimise disability amongst employees by providing specific interventions against conditions like depression and anxiety.
The development and implementation of a workplace mental health policy and program will benefit the health of employees, increase the productivity of the company and will contribute to the well-being of the community at large. It has been found that psychosocial intervention courses along with stress management training and health promotion interventions have a positive impact on mental well-being.
A healthy population is an economically productive population and it is in the benefit of companies to safeguard public health. Given the heavy contributions of the private sector to the economy, employee wellness programs are not only a strategic priority for the country but also an economic imperative for corporations.
It’s a bit stodgy, wordy and worthy perhaps, but is just an example, an example which, if followed and tailored, could significantly add to the sum of human happiness.
And corporate success.