Improving workplace mental health

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Improving workplace mental health

Key points

Business case

  • Failure to address mental health issues is costing the UK as much as £42bn a year
  • But employers are responding, with 37% planning to put a strategy in place
  • However, only 18% of employers support mental wellbeing through their benefit programmes

Mental health is a significant issue in the workplace. Nick Martindale takes a look at how a growing number of issues are recognising and tackling the challenge.

The issue of stress is a growing problem in the UK. According to figures from Mind, one in four people experiences a mental health problem each year, while the NHS suggests one in six suffers from a common issue, such as anxiety or depression, in any given week.

Research carried out on behalf of ADP, meanwhile, finds 20% of staff suffer stress on a daily basis, and a third (33 per cent) say they are so stressed they are considering looking for another job. Perkbox suggests work is the most common cause of stress, for 59% of people, and also claims 45% of UK firms do nothing to help address this.

Failing to address the issue of mental health, meanwhile, is costing the UK between £33bn and £42bn a year, according to the government's recent Thriving At Work report.

There are signs, though, that this is now getting more prominence from employers; research by the Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) in association with Punter Southall Health & Protection found some 60% of chief executives cite mental health in the workplace as the area of employee wellbeing with which they are most concerned. And, while just 16% of employers currently have a defined mental health strategy in place, 37% plan to introduce one in the next 12 months and a further 26% by 2020.

Taking steps

The good news is that there are a number of steps employers can take to target mental health, both in helping to reduce the numbers of people becoming ill in the first place and also to recover if they are affected. A good initial starting point, says Sodexo Engage director of HR Nicola Britovsek is to train managers to spot the signs that someone could be struggling, and for them to be able to direct employees towards appropriate support.

"Changes in behaviour, acting withdrawn or being unable to cope with daily tasks could all be signs," she says. "Managers should ask simple, open questions that encourage staff to talk about their concerns. Having open-door policies and mental health champions are also strong ways to create a culture where staff feel empowered to speak up about any problems early on, before they get worse."

Managers can also help by ensuring staff have realistic workloads, and are not put under undue pressure at work. "Workloads ideally need to be broken into small, manageable pieces with realistic timeframes and deadlines," points out Richard Holmes, director of wellbeing at Westfield Health. "It varies from industry to industry and is very dependent on what the working environment allows, but ultimately it's about making sure employees can breathe, and can work calmly and efficiently."

Formal programmes

Businesses can also introduce more formal wellbeing programmes, which can include elements designed to help improve mental as well as physical health. Over half of employers (54%) now have some form of wellbeing strategy, according to research by Aon Employee Benefits, although only 62% of these contain measures to help with mental health. Significantly, though, 42% of employers now have stress reduction elements in their programme.

Catering firm Lexington recently introduced one such programme, with a heavy emphasis on addressing stress; a common problem in the sector. This included running wellbeing workshops for managers and head chefs, and publishing a monthly factsheet offering advice on specific social, mental, physical and financial wellbeing areas. "Individuals have commented about how they now find it easier to talk about issues and flag concerns before they become a real problem," says Emma Langford, people manager at Lexington."

Employee benefits can also help in tackling the issue of mental health. Employee assistance programmes can be particularly useful in providing employees with a forum to discuss any issues, says Unum UK HR director Liz Walker. "They provide fast, confidential solutions to all kinds of problems from mental health to debt and relationship worries that could otherwise quickly escalate and impact productivity." Unum recently publicised statistics around calls to its EAP provider LifeWorks, revealing that 70% of callers wanted help on a mental health issue - with anxiety and depression the most common matters - and 92% reported an immediate improvement in their condition as a result of calling.

Apps and other online services can also help individuals get help if they don't want to have a conversation with a line manager or boss. "Mindfulness apps can offer employees an easy place to access mental health advice or unwind," says Thomsons Online Benefits head of health and wellbeing David Bourne. "Mental health can still be a difficult topic for many employees to discuss so these kinds of apps are vital in making sure they are getting the help they need." Online platforms such as SilverCloud can also help employees improve their resilience, with the aim of preventing them becoming unwell in the first place.

When people are struggling, taking early action through a healthcare plan can ensure any problems do not escalate. "Being able to self-refer for mental health treatment through a healthcare plan can help, particularly for employees who don't yet feel comfortable talking about mental health with their manager," says Liam Hughes, director of client management Europe at Cigna. "Accessing psychotherapy, cognitive behaviour therapy or psychiatric care via the NHS can involve long waiting times, in some cases over 52 weeks, but a private healthcare plan will give your employees access to a qualified mental health team who will assess their needs quickly and refer to the right treatment fast."

Tokenism

Yet it seems employers are not making the most of the potential for employee benefits to tackle stress and other mental health issues. Research by Thomsons Online Benefits found just 18% of employers support mental wellbeing through their benefits programmes, despite this being a life goal for 40% of employees.

"Historically workplace wellness schemes have been somewhat tokenistic," says Neil Mountford, chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA). "EAPs have been a longstanding workplace benefit focusing on mental health, but often remain poorly promoted and under-utilised.  When considering a wellbeing strategy, employers should seek to integrate their EAP with the other services and benefits they provide and emphasise a holistic approach." Having senior management support for such initiatives is also essential, he adds.

In some cases, employers simply need to make better use of their existing provisions, suggests Paul Roberts, senior consultant at employee health and wellbeing consultancy IHC. "Organisations need to use the services, helplines and insurance policies they already buy to best effect," he says. "Promoting the awareness of help and support and measuring engagement, instead of buying more, is the best first step. If that falls short, then look to replace or augment the suppliers you use and service they provide."

Employers may also want to hone in on particular areas affecting their own workforce. "We are seeing an increase in the number of employers providing focused wellbeing events throughout the year," says Cheryl Brennan, director of corporate consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection. "Most are considering financial wellbeing as a key topic as part of a wider programme that also covers other subjects, such as mental resilience. As we continue to understand how diet, alcohol intake and sleep impacts our mental health, we are seeing an increase in focus on these areas."

Financial issues

Finance in general is a big issue among younger workers. A recent survey by UK Youth found young adults aged between 18 and 25 spend more than six hours a day feeling stressed, with money worries the main culprit. "Employers have an incredible opportunity to really help staff deal with their worries," says Sally Wilson, senior research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies. "It could be anything from managing the day-to-day costs of living to accessing external financial advice."

Offering financial education through seminars, workshops or printed materials can also help employees make better financial decisions, says Walker, and get help if they find themselves in difficulty. "Money worries are known to have an enormous effect on mental wellbeing, and can be both the cause and effect of mental health problems," she says.

Taking steps to help people fit their work in around other issues can also help to prevent them becoming stressed or feeling overwhelmed. "Policies like flexible working can informally support mental health," says Walker. "Having the option to work from home a few days a week, or even to reduce their hours for a period of time, can relieve some of the pressure on employees."

This can be particularly useful for those who have to balance working with family responsibilities, including those who find themselves caring for elderly relatives. IES recently evaluated the Carers in Employment initiative, aimed at supporting working people who are providing informal care. "Findings showed that flexible working could help them achieve a better work-life balance, leading to self-reported improved wellbeing," says Wilson. "In some cases assistive technology, such as alarms which are activated when a person falls, can help carers have greater peace of mind about the wellbeing of an unwell or frail person at home, with a positive impact on their own stress levels."

There are signs that employers are starting to take the issue of stress and mental health more seriously. Research from the Top Employers Institute found the number of companies running a stress management programmes increased from 83% in 2016 to 93% in 2018. "We know from our conversations with ‘Top Employers' that mental health is high on their agenda and most are taking action to support employees to try and prevent problems," says Top Employers Institute regional director for France, Italy, Spain and the UK Alessia Tanganelli. "In fact 99% [of those ranked Top Employers] provide access to an EAP and 87% offer a preventative occupational health programme. We need to see more organisations follow in their footsteps."

Aon Employee Benefits senior consultant Charles Alberts agrees that more needs to be done, but also points to the growing evidence of the impact that getting on top of mental health can have on an organisation. "There are numerous studies that show the effectiveness of wellbeing interventions, and mental health interventions specifically," he says. "In one such study, the stock market value of companies with award-winning wellbeing programmes appreciated by 325% versus 105%. Another showed that the average return on investment of workplace mental health interventions is greater than 4:1.

"The most effective business case, however, is when companies look at their own data to see what impact their interventions are having," he adds. "Yet Aon's 2017 Health Survey shows that only 25% of employers currently use data analytics to inform their wellbeing strategy, and only 15% currently measure the outcomes or returns on investment. Encouragingly, a large number of employers plan to measure this in the future, reflecting a general increase in sophistication of programmes."

Key points

Business case

  • Failure to address mental health issues is costing the UK as much as £42bn a year
  • But employers are responding, with 37% planning to put a strategy in place
  • However, only 18% of employers support mental wellbeing through their benefit programmes

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