Analysis: many organisations find mental health and work-related stress difficult to tackle effectively and systematically

Many of us find ourselves in uncertainty again this summer: will we return to work full-time or continue to work from home? Or will there be a 'new normal' of hybrid working at home and business premises? It’s complicated, as many employers will tell you, and depends on the business sector in which the organisation operate.

Even though the pandemic has certainly complicated things, it has in reality accelerated trends that were already in the making highlighting stark differences across countries. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living & Working Conditions (Eurofound) estimated that the highest share of remote workers appears to be in the Nordic (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden) and Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg), while the countries with the lowest shares were in Eastern and Southern Europe.

Further differences exist in relation to gender (45% of women against 30% of men), educational qualifications (66% of third level education graduates are in teleworkable occupations), and pay (74% of workers in the top 20% highest paying jobs against only 3% of workers in the 20% lowest paying jobs).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, Peter Cosgrave from Futurewise and Dr Laura Bambrick from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on remote working and pay

There is also evidence that the expected ‘new normal’ of remote or hybrid work is associated with emerging challenges. These include an inability to disconnect and a blurring of boundaries between work and non-work life, isolation and increased cognitive and emotional load. The latest data from Eurofound shows that mental?well-being?has reached?its?lowest level?since?the?onset?of the pandemic?over a year ago.

Stigma is often associated with non-disclosure and lack of action in relation to mental ill health and work-related stress. It is acknowledged that many organisations find these issues difficult to tackle effectively and systematically.

To do so, the first question we need to ask is if we know what kind of work is good for us? It is well known that work positively contributes to our health and well-being. Many studies have compared those of us who work and those who don’t and do not do so out of choice and have found that those who work report better health and well-being and have a reduced risk of premature death.

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, a Facebook moderator tells an Oireachtas commitee of the mental health impact of her job

However, studies have also focused on what good work means and how it is related to several outcomes such as health, well-being and dignity. The OECD has developed the Job Quality index which includes the quality of the working environment as well earnings and security.

A key concept in relation to the quality of the working environment is that of psychosocial (or psychological and social) risks to health and well-being which refer to the balance between job demands and job resources. They are recognised as the number one priority in the future of work

The second question to ask is, what will motivate employers to develop good quality and mentally healthy workplaces? We are experiencing accelerated changes in the world of work, but innovation instead of stagnation in times like these will benefit businesses, employees and society overall. This is important, as the emerging evidence is already concerning regarding mental health in the new work landscape. But it is also important as evidence is available to show that good work that promotes mental health and well-being also promotes productivity, innovative work and financial gains.

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From RTÉ's You OK podcast, performance psychologist Gerry Hussey shares his take on why it is important for us to reflect on the things in our lives that we can control

The third question is, do we know how to do so? The International Standardization Organization recently published ISO 45003, a new standard on psychological health and safety in the workplace. It aims to clarify good standards and allow organisations to audit their practices against them.

It places a focus on the work environment, organisational culture, the management of psychosocial risks, and leadership and worker involvement. It also highlights important supports that can be put in place to promote mental health and well-being at work. However, it does so prioritizing a preventive perspective and a systematic process.

The final question to ask, then is if our employers are ready to take on the challenge and innovate? Success in the future world of work may well depend on the answer to this.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ