Mental health in the workplace

Written by: David Howie

Published: 05/02/2021

David shares some of his findings and recommendations from his dissertation on mental health in the workplace.

Mental health is a paramount issue for developed and developing societies alike. Post COVID-19 government policy requirements must prioritise a wellbeing economy framework. That framework should focus on removing the actors, which impact mental health in the first place. In his book ‘Can we be happier? Evidence and Ethics’ Richard Layard suggest the main instigator of stress is the workplace. In line with the findings presented in an unpublished MSc dissertation (David Howie’s), Layard argues that social capital- good work relationships.  Job variation – an exciting job.  Can mitigate ill mental health and prevent absenteeism – time off work and can improve productivity.

Layard’s work provides multiple reasons why governments must move towards a wellbeing economy. However, Layard’s work provides no framework on how to proceed (David is still reading). In comparison to Layard’s work which asks ‘Can we be happier?’ David’s dissertation asks ‘why is there a subjective wellbeing premium in the voluntary sector employment?’ An alternative framing on David’s dissertation question could be ‘what makes us happier in the workplace?’ Using inductive evidence – eight interviews with voluntary sector employees, David identified five themes which contribute toward a wellbeing premium and the removal of ill mental health in the workplace. Layard has identified two of the themes – social capital and job variation. The other three themes are the wider community, values, and funding. Note David’s dissertation uses the theme organisational structure, not job variation.

For society to build back better, post-COVID-19 the Scottish Government should implement a policy that focuses on the five themes identified across David’s dissertation and Layard’s work. However, the Scottish Government can influence voluntary sector employees’ wellbeing directly, mainly due to funding and workload direction—additionally, third sector organisations are linked closely to Scottish Government policy networks. The Scottish Government does not have the same direct control over private sector organisations. As a result, private sector organisations have focused more on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and less on employees as stakeholders.

The cornerstone of the build back better movement should be looking to bring to the forefront of society that all citizens are stakeholders. It should recognise that the employees in all sectors are stakeholders, and all stakeholders matter equally. One of the interviewees quoted in David’s dissertation states what is essential to them, in providing a workplace subjective wellbeing premium is the “ethos of the third sector.” The third sector’s ethos, which the interviewee is referencing is the human rights-based approach, the right to work and the social model of disability.

Having identified five themes which have the potential to reduce ill mental health in the workplace. The question, therefore, is ‘how can the themes become the workplace norm?’ Like social norms, workplace norms shall be challenging to change. It is essential though that Government and their policy networks develop a social marketing campaign – pointing out the benefit of having the five themes in the workplace – and how the five themes can reduce job stress and ill mental health. Providing the Scottish Government and their social policy networks approve this social marketing campaign, the canvas would not start blanc. The original canvas appeared first in Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s 1979 article (this link will take you away from our website) in the Harvard Business Review.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter argues that when employees have power in the workplace, employees’ performance improves. Layard, as does David, terms power, as ‘happiness of…workers.’ The principal argument is the same. Providing (1) Interpersonal contact in the job, (2) Contact with senior officials, (3) Participation in programs, conferences, meetings, (4) Participation in problem-solving tasks, and (5) Advancement prospects of subordinates are all high – that is to state the employees’ subjective understanding is high. Then the employee will have power/wellbeing/happiness.

The third sector as a framework

Changing the private sector organisations mind-set is not going to be a simple task. The private sector organisations mind-set has bases in Thatcherism and years of discourse (way of thinking). The Scottish Government’s social policy objective of a fairer, healthier Scotland is only obtainable if the inequalities which make society unfair and unhealthy are subject to social policy removal. Layard has pointed out the place where human beings are the least happy is in the workplace.

Layard’s and Kanter’s work leads David to conclude that employees are most unhappy because (1) employees have little to no interpersonal contact in the job. (2) Contact with senior officials is low, not contact with supervisors, but contact with board members. (3) Participation in programs, conferences, meetings is low. Outside the third sector, can anyone think of a situation where an office/shop employee would have the ability to access and influence an annual general meeting? (4) Participation in problem-solving tasks is low. Office/shop workers know their working environment best, why then do not these employees have the autonomy to make changes to their working environment? (5) Employees’ see no advancement prospects of subordinates or for themselves.

While Layard’s work highlights employment in a large private organisation, is connected to employees becoming unhappy and developing ill mental health (in some cases). Kanter offers a framework to roll back the effects corporatism can cause. Kanter’s framework, however, is a theory. Alternatively, perhaps Kanter’s framework could have been viewed as a theory. However, David’s dissertation contributes to the discussion on employee wellbeing creation by highlighting that voluntary sector employees already have a subjective wellbeing premium and are happier than their private-sector counterparts.

However, as the dissertation points out, the ‘subjective wellbeing premium’ is not distributed equally across the third sector. Employees who have long term contracts and feel their employer contributes towards a social good are happier in their employment role.


David concluded his dissertation by agreeing with Kanter. When employees have power in the workplace, employees are happier. The happier an employee is, the more likely the employee is to develop s subjective wellbeing. Post COVID-19 there must be a collaborative approach to empowering all employees in all sectors. If society is to build back better post-COVID-19, every employee must have the opportunity to develop subjective wellbeing.

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