John Dean follows up on the recent Mental Health Awareness week.
This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14-20 May) focused on stress. The organisers of the event, the Mental Health Foundation, have highlighted that 16m people experience a mental health problem each year and that stress is a key contributing factor.
Other research from the mental health charity, Mind has found that mental health issues such as stress are the number one cause of workplace absence. Employers are increasingly recognising this and taking steps to support their employees with mental health issues.
The latest ‘Employee Wellbeing Research 2018′ from Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) highlighted that that 60% of UK chief executives say mental health is the area of employee wellbeing they are most concerned about.
The report also highlighted that business leaders increasingly recognise that high pressured working environments are putting their employees’ physical and mental health at risk.
So, what are businesses doing to address this?
It’s encouraging that companies plan to do more to improve their workforce mental health, but for these programmes to be successful, they need to an integral part of the business strategy and also prioritised by the board.
Just 16% of employers currently have a defined mental health strategy in place, however, 37% plan to introduce one in the next 12 months and a further 26% by 2020. This suggests that by the early 2020s more than three-quarters (78%) of UK companies will have a defined mental health strategy.
This may in part have been prompted by the government’s recent focus on mental health in the workplace and its ‘Thriving at Work report’ published last year, which outlined that the cost of poor mental health to employers was between £33bn and £42bn a year.
The report found that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year and around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.
It’s encouraging that companies plan to do more to improve their workforce mental health, but for these programmes to be successful, they need to an integral part of the business strategy and also prioritised by the board. The strategy must be planned carefully and communicated to the workforce effectively, so everyone is clear about the support services available.
A programme to support mental health
Where can companies start?
A recommended first step for employers is data analysis. Analysing data can help employers better understand what healthcare challenges exist – both physical and mental.
Data can be collated from several places – absence management figures, employee surveys, usage of any insurances that the employer offers (such as private medical insurance or income protection) and what health and wellbeing initiatives are used most.
Employers should involve people in the planning process – asking them what types of wellbeing initiatives they would most like. Employee surveys or focus groups are useful tools to canvas their views about the organisation’s current programme and improvements that could be made, particularly in relation to mental health support.
Once employers have the fuller picture, they can build a tailored programme with quantifiable objectives and get buy-in from the board. Leading from the top is essential to ensure success and having someone at board level truly champion the wellbeing strategy can be vastly powerful for staff.
When it comes to supporting employees with mental illness, employers could look at providing access to support services such as counselling, mental health first aiders and employee assistance programmes (EAP), an increasingly popular benefit for helping people deal with mental health issues.
EAPs are the top wellbeing initiative currently offered in the workplace and are usually offered for free alongside other insurances. They are often underused, but they have great potential if actively promoted and tailored to the needs of employees.
Increasingly employers are also looking at other areas that may impact mental health, such as financial wellbeing, diet, alcohol intake and sleep and developing programmes to address these issues.
Increasing numbers of employers this year will be investing in financial wellness, providing more support for employees who are carers for relatives and also looking at ways to address their employees’ sleep concerns.
To improve their support for mental health, companies need to train their line managers to give them the right knowledge and skills to support and manage employees with mental health issues. Line managers can spot the early warning signs of stress, anxiety and depression in their teams and can direct them towards appropriate support.
Encouraging open communication can also help break down the stigma of mental health. Having time during weekly meetings to talk about any concerns or simply having line managers mention what support is available on a regular basis can help break down barriers.
How to communicate must also be considered. Everyone still believes face-to-face is best, however, this is costly in terms of money and time and employers could make more use of digital tools including video and apps.
Tying wellbeing programmes into national health campaigns is another useful exercise to improve effectiveness. For example, Mental Health Awareness week is often a great opportunity for companies to launch a campaign and start talking about issues around mental health and communicating the support that is available.
During the week, there will also be lots of publicity and information freely available that companies can use to educate and support their staff.
There is a growing openness and willingness in the workplace to implement wellbeing programmes that address mental health. However, companies need to identify the specific challenges their workforce is facing and develop a strategy that can be targeted effectively and that ultimately helps to improve wellbeing in the workplace.
About the author
John Dean is commercial director of Punter Southall Health & Protection.