Keeping staff healthy goes beyond physical fitness. Mental health issues affect numerous people and need to be tackled sensitively. Sam Barrett reports


With its ability to improve health and happiness while also maximising performance and productivity, employee wellbeing is the latest must-have in the reward space.

But, while organisations are exploring a wide range of wellbeing initiatives, taboos around mental health mean many could be missing out on a key component of an effective programme.

The fact there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to employee wellbeing doesn’t help. What ends up in a wellbeing programme is often shaped by the culture of the organisation and the profile of its workforce.

“Wellbeing means different things to different employers,” says Andrew Kinder, chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association. “One firm might introduce health and safety focused support for manual workers, while another will prefer to use fitness challenges and gym membership to motivate a younger workforce.”

Wellbeing programme components can also be dictated by budget. For instance, at the lower cost end of the spectrum are simple changes such as lunchtime walking clubs, healthier food in the canteen and simple health checks, while those with bigger budgets can invest in on-site gyms, wearable technology and medical insurance.

The full package

But, while initiatives such as free fruit, yoga classes and health information can all sit under the wellbeing banner, Louise Aston, director, wellbeing at work, at Business in the Community, says that the more enlightened and progressive employers take a biopsychosocial approach when it comes to employee wellbeing.

As the name suggests, this approach recognises that our health and wellbeing is determined by the interaction of biological factors such as physical health and fitness; psychological aspects including self-esteem; and social elements such as family life and work relationships.

“It’s about the whole person rather than just certain elements of their health,” says Aston. “Unfortunately many employers leave out the mental health aspect, but this is short-sighted. No one leaves their anxieties and home life at the door when they come to work.”

Overlooking mental health can have serious implications for employers. According to the charity Centre for Mental Health, 91 million working days are lost each year due to such problems at an annual cost of nearly £26bn.

Even where it doesn’t result in absence, an employee struggling with conditions such as anxiety and depression can suffer a slump in productivity.

It can also have an effect on health and safety, as Kinder explains: “If an employee is distracted, they might not pay attention to what they’re doing, leading to more accidents in the workplace.”

Out of sight

In spite of these reasons for taking employee mental health seriously, many organisations adopt a head-in-the-sand approach to it. Kieran Stratton, manager of individual assessments at insurance company Ellipse, says this is rarely out of malice.

“It usually boils down to ignorance,” he says. “It’s easy to make allowances for an employee with a physical problem such as a broken leg, but when it’s a mental health condition such as depression there’s nothing for them to grasp.”

This is supported by research conducted by Canada Life Group Insurance. It found that although more than half (57%) of UK employees have suffered from mental health problems while in employment, a third felt their employer treated mental health issues in a negative way. Of these, more than a third said they thought their employer was uncomfortable dealing with the subject.

Certainly, there are plenty of myths around mental health that can prevent employers and employees from broaching the topic.

These can range from it being rare – when in fact one in four people suffer a mental health problem each year – to it signalling career death.

However, with business leaders and celebrities including the chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group António Horta-Osório, former Barclays’ head of compliance Sir Hector Sants and actress Catherine Zeta-Jones admitting they’ve battled mental health problems, there’s plenty of evidence that this isn’t the case.

Breaking down the taboos

Making mental health part of an organisation’s culture is a key part of normalising it so employees feel able to talk about any problems they might be experiencing. To achieve this, Stratton recommends starting with the top line of management. “Educate your senior managers so they have an understanding of what mental health problems are and how they can affect individuals. This awareness will then trickle down through your organisation,” he says.

There’s plenty of free literature available to help with this. For example, the specialist charity Mind produces a range of documents explaining different conditions and related topics.

As well as getting senior management on side, it’s also important to ensure that policies throughout the organisation are supportive, too.

“Frame it as part of the company’s objective rather than a sticking plaster for when problems arise,” says Dr Wolfgang Seidl, workplace health consulting leader, UK and Europe at Mercer Marsh Benefits. “It needs to permeate through everything the company does.”

A good example of this is job design. Although technology enables us to integrate work and life more, for example catching up on emails late into the evening to be able to snatch an extra 20 minutes at the gym, Kinder says this approach can potentially be very unwise for employees’ mental health.

“Without boundaries, some employees will do too little, while others do too much,” he says. “You need to make sure everyone understands what’s expected of them to ensure it’s a positive change.”

Preparing the front line

The people management element of their role means that line managers play a key part in supporting mental health within the workplace.

But, according to Rebekah Haymes, senior wellbeing consultant at Willis Towers Watson, they can be seriously ill-equipped to deal with any problems. “Line managers won’t necessarily feel comfortable talking to their staff about mental health issues. But it’s sensible to provide them with training to help them develop these skills,” she explains.

As well as enabling them to talk in an empathic way to employees about any mental health problems they might be experiencing, training can also help them to identify the early warning signs that someone might be having a problem.

“It’s about providing them with the kit,” adds Haymes. “They don’t need to be able to provide counselling, just feel able to talk to employees about mental health and, where necessary, signpost them to the appropriate help and support.”

Another option for those dealing with employees is what could be described as a mental health first aid course. This covers areas such as how to raise awareness of the issues, identify employees with problems and develop strategies to provide support.

Stratton adds: “I’d implement this for one person within the company, for instance the HR manager, as it also provides an element of training to help them coach other people in how to support colleagues.”

Support tools

When it comes to the tools that are available to provide support to a workforce, possibly the most widely available is an employee assistance programme (EAP).

Telephone-based, these provide confidential advice, information and counselling, which can also be face to face, across a wide range of areas including childcare, legal advice and debt management as well as more general mental health support.

As usage can be really low, promotion is essential. “You have to keep promoting it and explaining what it offers,” says Haymes. “We also see instances where employees won’t call it because they think their employer will find out, so you need to emphasise that it’s confidential, too.”

Although EAPs are becoming universal thanks to their low cost, and sometimes freebie, status, employers can also provide support through private medical insurance, occupational health and onsite counselling and GP services.

Online solutions

Online GP services can also provide mental health support and counselling. For example, due to high demand from its users, digital healthcare service babylon launched its therapy service in December.

“Mental health problems were one of the top five requests we were receiving so it made sense to launch a separate service within the app,” explains Rebecca Minton, therapy service lead at babylon. “This enables users to book a 50 minute consultation with a therapist by phone or video whenever they like.”

It’s also rolled out additional support during the first months of 2016. Minton explains: “Some of the early warning signs of an episode of depression are staying at home and using the phone more.

“If someone registers as having experienced mental health problems, the app will look for these types of behaviours and reach out to see if they need any help.”

While there’s plenty of support available for employees who might be suffering with mental health problems, a growing number of organisations are also looking to provide employees with training to help them to look after themselves.

Seidl explains: “Originally conceived as stress management but now called resilience training, or more positively, energy management, these sessions can help employees understand what’s needed to support good mental health. It can be a really good way for an employer to demonstrate their commitment to their workforce.”

Although the steps required to break down the taboos and get to a position where mental health is treated on a par to physical can seem daunting, there are at least some encouraging signs.

“A growing number of businesses are tackling the issue in the workplace and this will help to shake off the stigmas around it,” Aston says. “The rewards, in terms of performance, reputation and the moral case, are too great to ignore.”

Five ways to wellbeing

In 2008, the New Economics Foundation was commissioned by the government’s Foresight project on ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing’ to develop a set of evidence-based actions to improve wellbeing. Based on psychological and economic research, it identified five ways:

  • Connectbuilding connections with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours can support and enrich an individual’s life.
  • Be activeas exercise makes you feel good, it recommends finding an activity you enjoy that’s suited to your level of mobility and fitness.
  • Take noticeby being more aware of the world around you and reflecting on your experiences, it can make you appreciate what matters to you.
  • Keep learningacademic or otherwise, learning new things can improve confidence and be fun.
  • Givethis can include volunteering, helping someone or just smiling, but the act of giving can be rewarding as well as create stronger connections with other people.