It’s difficult to concentrate at work if your personal finances are on your mind. Helen Undy, head of external affairs at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, offers some ways that employers can help
We are becoming sadly used to seeing the daunting headline statistics: one in four of us are living with a mental health problem, 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems leave the workforce every year, half of us are likely to be affected at some point in our lives.
And while progress on mental health has been made, there remains a long way to go. Calling in sick with depression is still harder than calling in with flu, and it’s likely to be dealt with differently if you do.
But, challenging as it is, it’s important that mental health at work is not left on the ‘too difficult’ pile. One of the best ways that we can do that is by ensuring we treat it in the same way as any other challenge facing employees at work.
Take musculoskeletal problems – up there with mental health problems as one of the major causes of workplace absence. Most workplaces will take a two-step approach to supporting employees with back pain and reducing related sickness absence:
1 Assessing and reducing workplace risks for back pain for everyone – adjusting chairs and desks, reducing heavy lifting or other activities that cause strain.
2 Putting in place additional support for colleagues with existing back problems –discussing their needs and offering appropriate adjustments.
We need to take the same approach to mental health, and it’s the first step we often miss. What are the risk-factors for poor mental health in your workplace? It could be long working hours, stress, exposure to trauma –or for many, it will be financial issues.
A quarter of the UK workforce are in a financially insecure situation, where debt or a lack of savings mean that a relatively small unexpected cost, such as a broken-down car, could cause significant distress. Nearly 1.7 million people in the UK have less than £100 in savings, and eight million are over-indebted. This is taking its toll on both mental health and performance at work. At The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, our research found that two-thirds of employees who are finding things financially difficult report at least one sign of poor mental health that affects them at work, compared to 41% of those who are financially comfortable.
Employees who are in a difficult financial situation are more than twice as likely to say they have found it hard to concentrate at work and are nearly three times as likely to have lost sleep over worry. Financial difficulty is a significant risk factor for poor mental health at work, but there are three straightforward ways an employer can help.
1 Build employees’ financial resilience – by providing both savings schemes and short-term loans through payroll, allowing a lower rate of interest to be offered and helping employees to avoid fees and charges.
2 Make it OK to talk about money worries – by including problem debt and financial difficulty in management training and minimising the costs of participation in work so that employees in financial difficulty are not excluded from social or professional events.
3 Help employees who are in difficulty with both their health and finances – by establishing reasonable sick pay policies, considering group income protection policies and by signposting to welfare advice where appropriate.
Mental health problems are not inevitable. While it’s essential to provide support to people who are struggling now – we can also be ambitious about reducing the number of people who struggle in future. Employers have a role to understand the risk factors for poor mental health – both those created by work and external factors – and to take steps to tackle them. Starting with some of these small, practical steps can help to take mental health off that ‘too difficult’ pile.