Mental health should be on your radar. So why isn’t it? It’s a tricky topic, so we spoke to Rebekah Haymes, Health and Benefits Senior Consultant at Willis Towers Watson about the importance of stress management and mental health initiatives across the sectors to give you the pointers you need. 

Businesses recognise there is a problem – but action needs to be taken

Employee mental health is becoming an increasingly critical issue for British businesses. Indeed, Willis Towers Watson’s (WTW) research* found that two-thirds (67%) of UK employers claimed worker stress was the number one cause for concern when it came to health-related issues.

But a disparity between companies committing to a concept and implementing a successful health and wellbeing strategy was identified.

Nearly all (97%) of employers surveyed said they are committed to health and productivity improvement in the years ahead, but 63% said they have no articulated strategy in place.

A similar survey has shown that:

31% of people questioned did not know what support was available to them in their workplace

Only four in ten people said they felt ‘confident’ to disclose a mental health problem in the workplace.

While only 25% said their workplace ‘encourages’ employees to discuss mental health concerns

37% of people surveyed said their employer well supports employees with mental health problems

While 21% of workers said their employer does not support mental health at work well

Mental health issues were more likely to affect workers in the public and voluntary sectors than those in private organisations

Businesses may recognise that a need exists but until a robust plan is in place to address this, progress will not be made.

Employers who understand their own employee population health risks and their underlying causes are likely to have greater success forging a holistic health and productivity strategy than employers that take a scattershot approach by offering individual, disconnected programmes.

So, look at the bigger picture and make health and productivity strategies a top priority. Putting them on the backburner will have lasting negative effects on both individual and organisational performance.

“Managers are the eyes and ears of organisations, so need to be equipped with the knowledge and confidence to enable them to pick up on the early warning signs and intervene where employees are struggling.” said Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy.

Breaking taboo time

Much has been done to dispel myths and challenge perceptions of mental illnesses in the workplace but research shows there is still a long way to go.

The latest research conducted by WTW** found that nearly one-fifth (19%) of employees believe a colleague who has previously suffered from mental health issues would be less able to fulfil their job role properly.

Around the same number (20%) harbour scepticism towards people who take time off due to mental health issues.

It would come as no surprise then that workers who have suffered from mental health illness are reluctant to speak to management about their issues and outlining their needs.

More than two-fifths (42%) of workers have suffered from stress or mental health issues but only 43% talked to their manager about the issues.

Fear of an impact on job prospects is the biggest reason (41%), followed by worry that management or colleagues would not understand (38%), a fear it would make colleagues think less of them (32%) and the belief they would not receive adequate support (31%).

Furthermore, only 33% of workers said they believe there is a culture of openness around mental health in their workplace.

This could lead people to suffer in silence rather than address problems in the open where they can be more easily treated.

It is essential to develop an open dialogue around mental health and adopt an open-door approach to management that allows staff to feel they will not be judged if they report feeling unwell.

Initiatives such as empathy training, which can be introduced to staff as part of personal development programmes, can help to foster a greater understanding of how to interact with colleagues in a sensitive manner that promotes mutual understanding.

Training might also include guidance on how to identify when colleagues are struggling and how best to approach them.

Work-related stress can be a root cause

It is important for employers to recognise that work pressures could be the root cause of or fuelling stress amongst workers.

According to WTW research, a third of all employees claim their job negatively impacts on mental wellbeing.

The reasons why work impacts on mental health are perhaps unsurprising.

More than three-fifths (62%) cite job pressure and deadlines, a further 54% blame high workloads and 41% point the finger at unpleasant management.

These results reinforce the need for companies to start an open dialogue around mental health and provide targeted support where necessary.

Stress risk assessments can be conducted, taking a view of issues such as workload, work patterns and environment to generate insight into an employee’s mental state.

The employer may make changes – with the permission of an at-risk employee – to make adjustments to alleviate workplace pressures.

How to help 

This could include flexible working, changes to the workspace, access to quiet rooms or an agreement to grant leave at short notice, allowing an employee to take time off for appointments related to their mental health.

It might be appropriate to offer a mentoring or ‘buddy’ system to strengthen the workplace support network and help with employee empathy.

The role of the mentor would be to provide on-the-job support to help the individual cope with any challenges they might experience at work. This might simply take the form of advice or a listening ear.

Legal rights for mental health

Managers need to tread carefully. The Equality Act 2010 is the law that gives employees the right to challenge discrimination. It protects people from being discriminated against because of certain protected characteristics, such as gender, age or disability and it will absolutely apply in your workplace. If you are a public authority, you have an additional duty to eliminate discrimination, called the public sector equality duty.

Examples of discrimination 

Mind have advised some examples of discrimination in this area.

If an employee with a mental health condition asks to apply for a new post doing work they are able to do and you say they cannot apply because of a mental health problem, this is an example of direct discrimination.

If someone has a mental health issue such as depression or an eating disorder and a manager is aware of this and makes offensive remarks about the condition in the open plan office, this is likely to be harassment.

If an employee does complain about disability discrimination and is then refused a promotion on the basis of loyalty to the company being in question, this is likely to be victimisation.

If an employee with a known mental health condition such as depression has periods of absence because of this depression and is disciplined because of a number of absences taken, this may be discrimination arising from disability.

If an employee looks after a relative with mental health problems and is treated worse because of this, this is direct discrimination – discrimination by association.

If someone does not have a mental health problem but is treated worse because it is perceived they have one,  this is likely to be direct discrimination – discrimination by perception.

‘Reasonable adjustments’

Employees are within their rights to ask for reasonable adjustments if they are experiencing substantial disadvantages because of a disability.

This might include

  • Letting an employee work from home when they are feeling anxious
  • A flexible approach to start and finish times
  • Providing a work mentor for support from during stressful periods at work
  • Allowing slightly longer periods of absence before taking action under the sickness policy than would apply to other employees

Increased supervision or support from line managers is also important. Staff can benefit from regular opportunities to discuss and review their progress and positive achievements but might also need help balancing workloads effectively in order to minimise stress.

If Employee Assistance Programmes, stress management and resilience programmes are offered by the company, these will encourage employee engagement.

Such measures can and do improve retention.  Employers who took part in Willis Towers Watson’s Global Talent Management and Rewards Study said that helping employees manage stress is one of the top five ways to strengthen their retention programmes.

A focus on mental wellbeing

A shift in culture must also be accompanied by a more proactive approach to treatment, which provides staff with access to continuous support and encourages a general focus on wellbeing.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), for example, are cost-effective benefits that provide employees with access to a 24/7 telephone helplines and trained counsellors. They are regularly included as standard in Group Income Protection (GIP) policies.

In addition to helpline support, counselling can be delivered face-to-face and offered as an independent employee support intervention.  A typical programme is short-term treatment of up to eight one-hour sessions, focusing on a specific therapeutic practice such as cognitive analytic therapy (CAT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or person-centred counselling. Payment for such treatment will sometimes also be included in GIP policies.

Aside from such targeted treatment, businesses can look to introduce initiatives such as mindfulness training. Mindfulness finds its origins in Buddhist meditation but it is increasingly being taught as a secular practice and can provide people with methods for dealing with unhelpful thoughts that can be worked into everyday activity.

The tools and support for implementing such practice are now widely available and mindfulness courses can even be completed online.

By combining an analytical approach with easy access to treatment and a focus on prevention, businesses can quickly establish themselves as purveyors of best practice. Not only will this help to reduce risk and exercise greater control over absence, it will mark them out as employers of choice.

* Willis Towers Watson’s Staying@Work Survey

** Willis Towers Watson’s Health and Wellbeing Barometer

Follow up reading:

Types of discrimination

Public sector equality duty