How can employers play a greater role in supporting the mental health of their employees?
The focus for Mental Health Awareness Week (14–20 May) is stress. The campaign aims to understand how many of us are living with high levels of stress and what the triggers are.
Research by the Mental Health Foundation has shown that two thirds of adults experience a mental health problem in their lifetimes.1 Work is a big part of most adults’ lives – and therefore the workplace is a key setting for understanding and addressing the problem.
Work-related stress, and mental health in general, is a growing concern for employers. Indeed, two fifths of businesses have reported an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, among staff.2 Yet despite growing awareness of the importance of good workplace mental health and wellbeing, many employees are reluctant to talk about mental health issues. For instance, 45% of employees who take time off work due to their mental health give another reason for their absence.3 There may, therefore, be a greater need for employers to appreciate how to manage mental ill health sensitively. This requires taking a different approach than they might with other forms of illness.
Getting more sleep, improving our diet and taking more exercise can all help us protect and improve our mental health. But where employers can support and incentivise these activities with employee benefits, it is likely that workplace mental health will improve.
As part of their cover, many ‘employee assistance programmes’ (EAPs) offer cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling to support psychological wellbeing. These programmes can provide invaluable support to those with one or several issues, whether those relate to work, legal matters, relationships, money or health. Moreover, proactive and preventative services provided through EAPs have been shown to be highly effective. Employee benefits provider Unum says that counselling provided through its programme improves mental health for 92% of its users.4
Deloitte calculates that the return on investment in workplace mental health intervention averages £4.20 for every £1 spent.5
Offering this kind of support should be combined with providing managers, and employees themselves, with the skills and autonomy to deal with the causes of stress within their teams, so as to improve employees’ health, job satisfaction and productivity. But perhaps the most important insight for employers to recognise when it comes to the management of work-related stress is that there is no single solution to the problem. No two employees – or indeed organisations – are the same, and therefore responses need to be tailored to the specific risks and needs of a workforce.
There are several steps employers can take to address the causes and symptoms of stress in the workplace:
- Develop a mental health policy – having a concrete policy reassures employees that their company cares about employee wellbeing.
- Create a culture of openness and awareness by encouraging people to talk about mental health.
- Encourage staff to take regular breaks away from their desks and get out of the office to reduce stress.
- Review job descriptions to make sure these set out clear and realistic expectations of staff. If not, this gap might contribute to, or even cause, distress amongst employees.
- Where possible, allow flexible working, and accommodations for all staff to work from home – during a period of stress or worry, coming in to the office could aggravate illness. Give employees the option to work from home if they need to be in more relaxed surroundings.
- Use staff newsletters, posters in communal areas, and other internal communications to raise awareness of mental health.
- Conduct regular staff surveys to take a temperature check on wellbeing and feed back the results and any progress to staff.
- Make sure staff know what support is available through your intranet, noticeboard or employee handbook and find opportunities throughout the year to remind people what is available and how to access it.
- Provide training and resources for managers or a member of your team to empower them to spot the signs of mental ill health. If employees know someone is knowledgeable about mental health matters, they may feel more comfortable in coming forward to discuss any problems they have at work, or even at home.
- Make sure managers spend time with staff and get to know them – this makes it easier to spot when they’re struggling or behaving uncharacteristically at work.
- Provide accessible guidance on how to manage stress.
- Create a peer-to-peer support system so people can talk with colleagues about their concerns.
- Consider providing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for additional support for staff if they’re having difficulties, whether inside or outside the workplace. EAPs can offer a range of services, often including face-to-face counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.
For more help and information on mental health support in the workplace, take a look at Unum’s mental health hub.
1 Mental Health Foundation, The state of the UK’s mental health, 2017
2 CIPD, Absence Management, 2016
3 Mental Health Foundation, Unum and Oxford Economics, Added Value: Mental health as a workplace asset, November 2016
4 www.unum.co.uk/media/counselling-provided-by-unums-eap-improves-mental-health-for-92-percent-of-users, March 2018
5 www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-uk-mental-health-employers-monitor-deloitte-oct-2017.pdf, October 2017