Mental Health Awareness Week - how employers can help #endthestigma

17 May 2018

Each year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) produces a report on health and well-being in the UK. This year, having surveyed over 1,000 HR professionals, the CIPD study (in partnership with Simplyhealth) revealed some notable areas of concern. 

Over the last 12 months, there has been a marked increase in the number of workplace absences linked to mental health issues with a rise from 41% in 2016, to 55% in 2018. Over a fifth of those employers surveyed reported mental ill-health as the primary cause of long-term sickness absence within their organisation.

The main causes of stress-related absence were said to be workload, management style and family issues. In addition, as technological advances improve our ability to connect immediately with whoever we want, whenever we want, the boundary between people’s working and private lives is becoming increasingly blurred. 87% of the survey’s respondents cited an inability to switch off outside of working hours as the main negative effect on employees.

Yet, for those employers who invested in health and wellbeing at work, the report noted 44% better employee morale and engagement, and 31% lower sickness absence.

These figures mirror the trends highlighted in last year’s Thriving At Work review. Commissioned by the Prime Minister in January 2017, Lord Dennis Stevenson (mental health campaigner) and Paul Farmer (CEO of mental health charity, Mind) conducted an independent review of mental health in the workplace, as part of a package of measures which the Government intended to introduce to transform mental health support across the country.

According to the review’s findings, 70 million working days are lost each year due to mental health illness, at a cost of £74-£99 billion to the UK economy. The financials pale in comparison as compared to the human cost—one in four of us suffers some kind of mental health issue each year.

With just over 75% of the UK population in employment—the highest rate since records began nearly 50 years ago—what can employers do to support people with mental health issues in the workplace? Below are our top three tips.

Raise awareness within your organisation and encourage open and judgement-free discussion

Part of the problem with mental health illness is the stigma which still surrounds it. Some employers become awkward and uncomfortable when faced with an employee who they believe needs help, meaning that they baulk from approaching that individual for fear saying or doing the wrong thing.

Consider holding “mental health awareness” days, activities or other events throughout the year to encourage your employees to speak up. Make sure that your HR representatives and/or senior managers attend these events. Leading from the top down is important. Explain to people that if they need to talk to someone (and do not feel comfortable discussing their issues with their manager), then HR are always available.

Newsletters and bulletins advertising mental health awareness in communal areas (such as kitchens, bathrooms, canteens, or locker rooms) or on your intranet, can also help encourage openness in the workplace.

Review the policies and procedures which you have in place

As the CIPD’s latest survey indicates, workload, management style, technological advances in the workplace and family issues are having a major impact on employees' health and wellbeing.

Can you introduce policies (if you do not already have any in place) to support employees in respect of these matters? For example, can employees work flexibly or remotely from home to enable them to better manage childcare or other caring/family responsibilities? Do you offer part-time working opportunities? Are your maternity, paternity, adoption and shared parental leave policies up to date?

What about your disciplinary and grievance policies and procedures? If people are having problems with a difficult manager or colleague, are they able (and more importantly, do they feel comfortable) raising their concerns with HR without fear of repercussions? If not, this can contribute significantly to the stress and anxiety which they may be suffering.

Also, think about the methods which you have in place to support people who may be struggling. Do you have an employee assistance program? Do you have an occupational health provider who you can call upon when required? Might it be helpful to create a buddy support system? Do your managers know what signs to look out for, which may indicate that someone is having a difficult time? If people appear to be working increasingly late or over the weekends, or are acting uncharacteristically, it may be that someone needs to step in to have a conversation with them, to see what mentoring, help or additional support can (or may need to) be provided.

Keep up to date with current best practice and make use of the public resources available to you

Raising mental health awareness has been firmly on the political agenda for the last few years. ACAS has a number of helpful guides and research papers for employers which can be accessed on its website, dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. In addition, charities like Mind and SANE also have brilliant resources available on their websites for employers trying to promote an open and supportive workplace culture.

The Major of London, Sadiq Khan, has also recently announced a scheme to promote mental health wellbeing in the City (specifically) called Thrive LDN, albeit there is no reason why the principles and practices for employers which come out of this scheme cannot be implemented elsewhere across the country. 

You may also consider it worth reviewing and implementing the recommendations for employers from the latest Modern Families Index 2018, Stephenson and Farmer’s Thriving At Work 2017 report, and/or signing up to the Workplace Wellbeing Index. This Index enables employers to assess their mental health offerings for employees to see where they are hitting the mark, and where there may be room for improvement.

As Stevenson and Farmer noted in their report, employers are perhaps the biggest collective within society, able to have the greatest impact on the public at large. This is about more than good business sense and best practice. It is a matter of social responsibility.

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