FEATURE1 August 2019

Health alert: five steps towards wellbeing at work

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Opinium has carried out a mental health audit on the market research industry and identified the top five things employers can do to help with staff mental health. Jane Bainbridge takes a look.

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Looking after our emotional – as well as our physical – health is increasingly seen as a vital part of our wellbeing. It’s been a long time coming. While physical ailments are often visible, mental illness is mostly invisible and, feeling stigmatised, sufferers have invariably felt that they must hide their problems.

But attitudes are starting to change. With a younger generation apparently experiencing unprecedented levels of emotional stress, schools are introducing good mental health programmes to help students. Rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm are all rising among children and young people and, to help tackle mental health problems early, the Mental Health Foundation launched its Make it Count campaign.

In the working world, more enlightened employers have been taking note of this wind of change and ensuring they are creating mentally healthy workplaces with systems to help those in need. But how widespread is this and how does market research fare as a sector?

This is what market research agency Opinium wanted to identify with its mental health audit.

Its employee study gained an understanding of people’s mental health at work nationally and it specifically looked at the market research sector by surveying the Market Research Society’s members earlier this year.

Opinium gained 2,000 responses from its national panel and 1,441 from the market research sector – 509 in-house respondents and 791 who work on the agency side.

It also garnered qualitative responses from its pop-up community to add insight.

Opinium partnered with Warwick Medical School and has exclusive access to use the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS). This scale was developed by the University of Warwick to monitor mental wellbeing and consists of 14 statements such as ‘I’ve been feeling useful’ with five response categories, scored one to five on – ‘none of the time’, ‘rarely’, ‘some of the time’, ‘often’, and ‘all of the time’. An overall wellbeing score out of 70 is calculated. The statements are all positively worded and cover both feeling and functioning aspects of mental wellbeing.

The rest of the mental wellbeing audit explores: general wellbeing, such as stress levels at work; absence and illness, including days off work for mental v physical health; culture and support, including things respondents wanted to see introduced; and the degree of openness around the topic.

Opinium found that 53% of workers in its national survey have struggled with their mental health, with 40% of employees saying they can talk openly to their manager about their mental wellbeing. However, 35% of workers are not offered anything to support their mental wellbeing – and, unsurprisingly, it is this group who are most likely to have below average mental wellbeing.

The market research industry appears to be under greater stress than the population at large, with 85% of market researchers agreeing they have struggled with their mental wellbeing in the past year and 77% saying it had affected their work.

Sophie Holland, research executive at Opinium, who led the research, says: “The fast-paced environment of agency life is a likely contributor, and in-house researchers cite unclear expectations as one of their main stresses at work.

“Though there are some differences between agency and in-house, it’s clear that mental wellbeing needs to be addressed in the market research industry as a whole, as 85% of market researchers have struggled with their mental wellbeing in the past year – including feeling low, anxiety, stress, burnout, panic attacks and ‘other mental health problems’.”

The research points to certain groups being more vulnerable than others. Research managers and executives have significantly lower mental wellbeing than partners/directors (WEMWBS scores of 45.3 compared with 48.2 ).

It’s often said men struggle to talk about their mental health more than women, with several campaigns around wellbeing particularly targeting men. In this research, male market researchers had lower mental wellbeing than their female counterparts (WEMWBS score of 45.5 for men compared with 46.7 for women).

In terms of our working life, the top stresses identified by market researchers were: workload ( 59%); impending deadlines ( 54%); risk of projects going wrong ( 45%); poor work-life balance ( 42%); and unclear expectations ( 38%).

Of course, researching mental health must be handled carefully too. James Endersby, chief executive at Opinium, explains: “Some of the considerations and challenges the team faced were: the huge importance of ensuring participant welfare throughout the research; safeguarding participants’ identity during open-ended questions; ensuring consistent measurement; the phrasing of questions and trying to ensure the simple representation of complex and abstract concepts.”

The market research respondents were asked about barriers to opening up to their employers and more than a third ( 36%) said they didn’t think it was necessary to tell them, with 24% saying they didn’t think their employer would be able to help. Just under a quarter ( 23%) said they were embarrassed and 22% said they were worried their employer wouldn’t understand. Just less than one in five ( 18%) said they didn’t know how to talk about it.

“It’s embarrassing. I feel (wrongly I’m sure) that for a man to say so is still perceived as weak or fussy,” was the open-end response of one male agency research manager aged 29. A female in-house research executive said: “I have never said anything because people gossip at work and I don’t trust that my personal business will be in confidence. I just keep on smiling, and cry when I go home.”

So, what can companies do to establish better practices for mental wellbeing among their workforce? The top five initiatives that have the most enhancing effect on mental wellbeing scores, according to the WEMWBS scale, are:

  • enforcing mandatory breaks ( 29%)
  • cultivating a culture of openness and transparency ( 29%)
  • recreational classes at lunch or after work ( 24%)
  • a mentoring scheme in place with the company ( 24%)
  • ‘duvet’/mental health days ( 23%).

Some companies are getting it right. “My line manager was amazing. He told me about a time he had suffered similar, how to get signed off and assured me that I should take that time to look after myself,” said one female associate director.

Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) © University of Warwick, NHS Health Scotland and University of Edinburgh, 2007, all rights reserved.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of Impact.