ADVO Group interviews Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services, AXA PPP Healthcare


Recent research from AXA PPP healthcare has uncovered a series of worrying statistics with regard to the health and wellbeing of middle aged workers, in particular; that they tend to take more sick days than any other age group; averaging 2.3 sick days in the past six months. In our latest interview, Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare’s specialist Health Services division, provides some further expert insight into this research.

The recent research that looked into the work and home pressures being felt by the 30-49 year old age group showed a number of worrying statistics. Which figures really stood out for you as being particularly alarming?

For us the statistics paint a worrying picture on the state of wellbeing for this middle age bracket. Thirty-eight per cent of middle aged workers feel stressed all or most of the time. This constant stress will have a negative impact on an individual’s mental health. This age bracket needs to manage their wellbeing better to prevent burn out or falling into unhealthy habits such as craving sugar and relying on alcohol consumption to relax. One way to achieve this is to build up their resilience as this will help make them mentally stronger.

Many of the employees in this age band felt their career path had reached a point of limited future progression. What factors do you think could be contributing towards this group feeling this way about their jobs?

Following the recession, the UK has experienced difficulties in the job market, with people scared of losing their jobs. When combined with an ageing workforce and the resulting fewer opportunities as people are working for longer, career paths can seem to reach a plateau. While the pressure from an unstable economy is now easing, people are still feeling the after effects such as stagnated career paths through, for example, lack of training. If workers think their career has stalled, they should talk to their line manager and look to set specific objectives to help them meet their ambitions.

Employers clearly need to take action to address the issue of the stresses felt by their middle-aged workers. What do you think are some of the most effective initial steps employers could take in addressing this?

One simple step employers can take is to ask how employees are feeling. Asking in one-to-ones or regular catch ups normalises the question and gives employees the chance to open up about their problems. Other initiatives employers can use to help manage stress include offering flexible working as this allows employees to adapt their work/life balance or reduce pressures such as the opportunity to avoid a rush-hour commute.

This middle aged group of employees seem to take a far greater proportion of sick days off each year. A multitude of factors could be affecting this such as lack of motivation, overworking causing illness and stress etc. What do you think are most likely to be the main contributing factors?

The amount of sick days taken by this age group is telling. They are clearly under lots of pressure, which is leading to a high proportion of sick days. Employers need to look at improving their wellbeing by discouraging regular overtime or presenteeism. In addition, they could introduce resilience training as this helps to make employees more able to manage pressure and can help them deal better with any stresses that come their way. Any changes must be encouraged from the top down, meaning senior managers need to set an example by practising what they preach otherwise junior members will not feel able to follow suit.

One of the main causes of stress for the middle aged group were financial stresses. Do you think the recovering economy could potentially help to alleviate this issue, to a certain extent at least?

The last five years have seen a significant squeeze on wages through the rising cost of living and inflation. We are now starting to see wages rising which is great news for employees but there is still some way to go. If employees are in significant financial trouble this will have a huge impact on stress and mental wellbeing. Employers need to encourage open conversations where employees can share their problems, whatever they are, which in turn can help ease burdens they may be experiencing and enable their employer to direct them to available support.

Do you think the stresses felt are more likely to affect workers within certain industries over others, or do you think the issues are more general across the workforce as a whole?

Stress can affect anyone at any time and is not specific to a particular industry. One in four will experience a mental health issue during their lifetime, showing how common it is. Businesses are becoming much more ‘mental health aware’ due to extensive media coverage on its impact. Businesses have to be more aware also due to the 2010 Equality Act as they can’t discriminate against those with mental health conditions. Awareness is a good thing as not understanding the problem breeds fear and stigma.

What would be your advice to employees in this middle aged banding to improve their outlook and manage the causes of their stress? What do you think are some of the easiest steps they themselves can take to improve their situation?

When it comes to mental health or stress, there is no one size fits all approach and different groups of employees in different organisations will respond more positively to certain support more than others. If an employee is suffering from stress or mental health problems, the best thing to do is talk to someone about your problems and find enjoyable activities that help you de-stress. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone, whether it’s your GP or line manager as by doing this they can determine the most appropriate support and initiatives that would be of value. By identifying what the employee needs, the appropriate interventions can be made.

Employers should be mindful of this issue when it comes to mental health and ensure the appropriate support is in place to help employees get the required support. Training should be available to help give line managers confidence to initiate a conversation and prepare them to handle the employee’s response to their concern, along with directing them to what they need in terms of support.