Many people struggle with issues such as stress or depression and employers have made huge strides in supporting their staff. Sam Barrett looks at what they can do to help

mental health issues

By talking openly about their mental health problems, celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta Jones and Stan Collymore have done a great deal to break down some of the stigmas. But with plenty of indications that many employers are still shying away from the issues, more needs to be done to support members of the workforce who are suffering from mental health problems.

An indication of how common such problems are can be seen in an analysis of calls made to Canada Life Group Insurance’s employee assistance programme (EAP), EmployeeCare. It found that, in the first quarter of the year, a fifth of calls to the service were regarding mental health issues, representing a 5% increase on the same period last year.

Further, while stress problems made up the largest proportion (43% of calls), it found that the number of employees seeking help for depression had increased by 40% and now accounted for nearly a third of all mental health related calls.

Another example of the increasing importance of the issue appears in the latest edition of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) survey, Absence Management 2014.

In this, 38% of employers stated they had seen an increase in stress-related absence over the past year, with a further 36% saying it had stayed the same.

More to do

Although this isn’t a great position, Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at the CIPD, actually believes these statistics may indicate that some improvement is being made.

“This increase could be because employees feel they can be honest about the reason they’re off work rather than hide behind other illnesses, such as headaches or stomach bugs,” she explains. “As a nation we are getting better at talking about mental health but some people still feel uncomfortable about it.”

This is understandable when you consider some of the myths that exist. These were identified by Business in the Community (BITC) and include: stress and mental health being an excuse for poor performance; stress being the line manager’s fault; and that employees should leave their stress at the door rather than bring it into the workplace.

Louise Aston, wellbeing director for BITC, says that while these misconceptions still exist it’s no surprise people feel they can’t talk about mental health.

“The truth is that one in four of us will suffer a mental health problem at some point in our lives, with one in six of our colleagues likely to be experiencing mental ill-health at any one time,” she says. “We need to make it as easy to talk about mental health as it is about physical health.”

Encouraging openness

Getting rid of the stigmas and creating a culture where employees feel they can talk about any problems they might have requires a multi-pronged approach.

One of the first steps is to ensure an organisation has an appropriate mental health policy. This needs to outline details, such as the rights of the staff member and the support the employer can provide.

“Having a policy can really begin to destigmatise mental health in the workplace,” says Kim Strugnell, director of healthcare consulting at Xafinity Group. “It also provides information about the support that’s available, which can help both employees and their line managers.”

As well as documenting the organisation’s approach to mental health, providing training for line managers is also key to creating an open culture.

“The biggest influence on the way employees feel about discussing their mental health problems is their line manager,” says Andrew Woolnough, value proposition director at Willis Employee Benefits. “Providing them with awareness training will help to break down this barrier.”

This can help managers identify the early signs of a problem and allow them to take the appropriate steps to help support the employee.

Specialist training can be provided through a number of channels, including occupational health companies and employee assistance programmes, which can also provide telephone-based support to line managers.

In addition, the mental health charity Mind also runs scheduled and bespoke courses specifically for the workplace.

Prevention…

While all these steps will encourage people to talk about any mental health problems they might be suffering, there are also preventative strategies that organisations can explore.

Beate O’Neil, head of wellness consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection Consulting, explains: “It’s not just about looking out for signs that an employee is suffering from a mental health problem: line managers should be doing more to ensure that everybody in their department feels supported in their work.”

As an example, she points at the growth in remote working, where a line manager might not see their staff for many weeks. “Consider having regular meetings to keep in touch and make sure they’re ok. If staff feel supported, they’ll be much more likely to confide in you if something does go wrong,” she adds.

Offering greater flexibility can also help. “Employers have to recognise that people have a life outside of the workplace and may need support managing everything from childcare and relationship problems to elderly care and illness,” says Dr Miller. “Offering flexibility can help secure a good work/life balance.”

Among the options are flexible hours, part-time working, condensed hours and sabbaticals but, with circumstances being unique to each individual, Dr Miller recommends being open to other solutions that might help to support the employee.

Viewing mental health as part of a broader health and wellbeing strategy can also help. For example, O’Neil suggests introducing initiatives such as exercise programmes and massages into the workplace as a means to support overall wellbeing.

…and intervention

Although it’s possible to reduce stress at work, it’s also important to keep an eye out for any potential problems.

“A common sign of stress is repeated short-term absence, perhaps for a headache or an upset stomach,” says Woolnough. “A smart absence management system will help you identify these patterns.”

This type of service can also be run by a third party supplier who will then call the staff member and talk to them about their health issues.

“The employee will receive a call from someone who is trained to talk about health so they may feel more comfortable in opening up,” says Woolnough.

“They’ll also be able to point the staff member in the direction of other employee benefits or services that can help.”

A number of employee benefits can be particularly relevant at this point. These include an EAP, especially one with access to face-to-face counselling if this is needed, but also medical insurance, if psychiatric treatment is required.

Group income protection can also come into play if a mental health problem could potentially result in a long-term absence.

As well as providing an income if the employee are unable to work, this benefit provides support to help get them back on their feet, including offering advice on how reasonable adjustments can be made so they feel able to return.

With so many different elements required to tackle mental health in the workplace, Aston recommends creating an internal branding for your strategy.

“Bring everything under one brand so employees can see what’s available if they have any mental health issues,” she says.

“It also makes it all very visible, encouraging staff to use it and demonstrating that you’re take it very seriously.”