We all have times when we feel stressed, upset or ‘down’. Most of the time, those feelings pass. But, sometimes, they develop into something more serious — mental health problems like anxiety or depression — which can impact our daily lives.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 264 million people globally suffer from depression, with many of these people also suffering from anxiety symptoms.

Well-recognised risk factors such as unemployment are often cited as a contributor to mental health problems. But a negative working environment can be just as detrimental to people’s mental health. Most of us spend a major part of our lives at work, so it goes without saying that if ‘work’ isn’t a nice place to be, it’ll have an adverse effect on our well-being.

These health consequences can, in turn, have costs for employers in terms of increased staff turnover and reduced productivity. (A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy USD one trillion each year in lost productivity.)

In contrast, workplaces that support people with mental disorders and promote mental health are more likely to increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and benefit from associated economic gains.

Risk factors in the work environment

Numerous risk factors in the working environment could lead to poor mental health — from inadequate health and safety policies and low levels of support for employees to poor communication and management practices.

Most risks relate to the skills and competencies of employees, the support available for employees to carry out their work and the overall organisational and managerial environment. These risks are all interlinked. Even if a person has the skills to complete tasks, they cannot do it well without the necessary resources, support or environment.

Risks may also be explicitly related to job content. For instance, if tasks are unsuitable for the employee’s competencies or they frequently face a high and unrelenting workload, it’ll likely harm their mental health.

The past year has also highlighted the risks associated with a lack of social support or team cohesion. Long spells working remotely can be incredibly isolating for employees while working from home can trigger an ‘always-on’ mentality and make it difficult for staff to switch off.

Promoting mental health in the workplace

To create a healthy work environment, companies must treat mental and physical health as equally important and address mental health problems regardless of cause. Even — in fact, especially — if this requires uncomfortable discussions regarding organisational practices. Awareness of the workplace environment and how it can be adapted to promote better mental health for different employees is crucial.

Some steps employers can take to protect and promote mental health in the workplace include:

  • Implementing and enforcing health and safety policies and practices that are shaped by the opportunities and needs of individual employees
  • Providing resources to support staff members’ mental health and ensuring they know where and how to access these resources
  • Involving employees in decision-making to foster a collective feeling of responsibility, control and participation
  • Encouraging organisational practices that support a healthy work-life balance, such as flexible working hours
  • Making sure employees have regular one-to-ones with their managers and that they can communicate openly and honestly with them
  • Promoting positive mental health by arranging awareness training, workshops or appointing mental health ‘champions’ who staff can go to for support.

Cross-country challenges

However, applying these steps across borders can be a challenge. Some policies — such as flexible working — may be difficult to action across time zones and create several logistical hurdles. That’s not to say that flexible working shouldn’t be a policy within an international organisation, but it’s essential to keep in mind that adjustments may need to be made to ensure the policy works for everyone.

Equally, different countries will have various cultural nuances and ‘norms’ to consider, which could impact policies that support mental health. For example, in Singapore, it’s not uncommon for employees to work nine to 10 hours during the weekdays and half a day on Saturdays. Scandinavian countries, in comparison, have a greater focus on work-life balance; employees in Sweden, Denmark and Norway typically work between 35 to 40 hours per week.

Findings from a December 2020 YouGov report also indicate that the likelihood of suffering from a mental health condition, including anxiety and depression, differs according to the country of residence. Results showed that out of the 21,000 people surveyed in 16 countries, workers in the UK suffered from the most mental health conditions. (Almost 65% of Britons said the pandemic had had a negative impact on the state of their mental health.)

The letter of the (international) law

When operating across multiple jurisdictions, organisations will also have various employment laws to contend with. In the UK, the Equality Act (2010) means people with mental health problems are protected from discrimination and harassment and are entitled to reasonable adjustments to adapt their job or work.

Yet, unlike countries such as France, where overtime is paid at an increased rate, employers in the UK don’t have to pay workers overtime — a key stressor for many employees. (Employers must, however, ensure the worker’s average pay for the total hours they work doesn’t fall below the National Minimum Wage.) Rules on sick pay and sickness leave also vary significantly from country to country.

But employers have a ‘duty of care’ to all workers and must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and mental well-being — regardless of where those employees are based. So, it’s crucial this duty of care is not impacted by location and that organisations adopt a consistent and seamless approach across all countries they operate in.

To keep you on the right side of compliance and ensure you’re doing all you can to support your employees around the world, it’s worth engaging a Professional Employer Organisation (PEO). Get in touch with PEO Worldwide today to find out more about our international employment services. Together, we can help you support your teams as you continue your global expansion journey.