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Time to lighten the load

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Society is starting to make real progress in opening up about mental health. Craig Thomas looks at how occupational drivers can identify and address any issues.

A Mercedes-Benz Vans survey found 56% of van drivers and owners still say there is a stigma attached to discussing mental health at work

A Mercedes-Benz Vans survey found 56% of van drivers and owners still say there is a stigma attached to discussing mental health at work

We’ve come a long way when it comes to our attitudes to mental health issues. As the subject increasingly becomes a normal part of our public discourse, helped by public figures being open about their experiences, we are all more aware and better informed.

But there’s much more work to be done, as highlighted by latest research. A survey carried out by Mercedes-Benz Vans to support the Mental Health Foundation’s recent Mental Health Awareness Week found more than half (56%) of van drivers and owners still say there is a stigma attached to discussing mental health at work. Among the reasons for this was that fears over job security and career progression made talking about mental health taboo.

The research also showed 28% of managers said an employee had spoken to them about mental health concerns, although female managers were more likely to have experienced an employee talking about mental health concerns than male managers (32% vs 26%).

Over half (57%) of those who say a colleague or employee has spoken to them about a mental health issue felt ‘glad they could confide in me’, but one in four admitted they felt uninformed, 21% said they felt embarrassed and a further 17% did not feel equipped to know what to do or say.

The figures highlight that there’s still work to be done in addressing mental health issues at work – and especially for those who drive as a function of their job and have to contend with the stress of life on the road.

From the fleet manager’s perspective, it’s important to note that The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate directly or indirectly against people with mental health problems in public services and functions, access to premises, work, education, associations and transport.

Because the link between stress and mental health is a tangible one, so tackling one can lead to improving attitudes of the other, as Chris O’Sullivan, head of workplace at the Mental Health Foundation, explains: “By tackling stress we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. But in order to confront these issues we need to eradicate the stigma, something that the Mercedes-Benz Vans research shows is still widespread among drivers.”

Mental health charity Mind is also working hard to raise awareness of the relationship between stress and mental health issues, and their impact on working life.

Emma Mamo, Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing, told us: “Stress and poor mental health are commonplace in most workplaces. According to recent research by Mind and YouGov, more than half (56%) of workers find work very or fairly stressful. Although stress itself is not a mental health problem, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to or worsen mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

“Commonly cited causes of stress include long working hours, lone or remote working and lack of support from colleagues or managers – all things people who drive for a living are likely to experience. Unsociable or long shifts make it difficult to establish a regular routine and sleep pattern, particularly if you have to fit non-work-related tasks around early starts and late finishes. All of these can affect your mental wellbeing.

“With the pressures associated with working alone, it is understandable that when left unsupported, drivers may experience a deterioration in their health and changes to their performance.

“In addition, employees who spend much of their working day on the road might find it difficult to maintain a healthy diet or find the time to take exercise throughout the day. Poor diet and lack of physical activity can both impact on our physical and mental health.”

As you might expect, Mind has lots of useful advice for occupational drivers with concerns about their mental health and what to do about it.

Mamo adds: “Becoming aware of the causes and symptoms of unmanageable stress, and letting family and friends know what signs to look out for, are both important. If you feel that ongoing work stress is having a negative impact on your mental wellbeing then speak to somebody about it.

“Speaking to your GP might seem daunting, and an extra thing that you have to worry about, but it’s the first step to getting the help and support that’s right for you.

“There are also lots of small things we can do to improve or maintain good mental health and wellbeing. Eating healthily, sleeping well and making time for exercise are all important. If you think you might be struggling with your mental health, take some time out for yourself and do something that you find relaxing. It’s also very important to open up about how you feel to someone you trust. Bottling things up only makes them worse.”

We can also support friends and colleagues if there are concerns about them.

“If you are worried about an employee or colleague’s mental health, you could start by talking about their general wellbeing and letting them know they can talk to you if they need to,” suggests Mamo.

“Everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so focus on the person, not the problem. Staying silent is one of the worst things people can do and opening up and talking about how they’re feeling can in turn help them feel more relaxed about seeking help.”

Ford has also launched a national awareness campaign that encourages people to speak more openly about mental health and to find safe, non-confrontational spaces to talk. Working with mental health campaigning group Time to Change, Ford is working to “break the silence on mental health” including highlighting the need to find safe, non-confrontational spaces to talk – in this case, a Transit, because research conducted by Ford found that two-thirds (67%) of people said they were more comfortable talking about issues when in a vehicle.

Such initiatives, along with the support of manufacturers such as Ford and Mercedes-Benz, are important steps to eradicate the stigma around mental health. But so is recognising that if we have issues and facing them, talking to people about them and seeking help.

And for employers, it’s important to recognise that staff are vulnerable – especially if their jobs involve coping with stressful situations such as driving – and offering as much support as possible.

We’ve come a long way in our attitudes to mental health – but there’s still work to do. For all of us.

Stress: how you can help yourself

The Mental Health Foundation has top 10 tips for dealing with stress.

  • Realise when it is causing a problem and identify the causes
  • Review your lifestyle
  • Build supportive relationships
  • Eat healthily
  • Be aware of your smoking and drinking
  • Exercise
  • Take time out
  • Be Mindful
  • Get some restful sleep
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself

For more information on these visit: mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress

In the event that drivers feel they’re not getting the support they need from their employer, advice is available from Acas or Mind’s legal line on 0300 466 6463 (lines open Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm or email [email protected]). Employees can also find information and practical steps to promote wellbeing, tackle stress and poor mental health at work by visiting: www.mind.org.uk/work

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Craig Thomas

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