We’re in the midst of National Mental Health Week (8th-14th May) – an event which seeks to raise awareness of mental health issues, and uncover why too few people in the UK have good mental health and are struggling to cope with the pressures and demands of life.
A recent research report from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, found that the number of people that have experienced mental health problems, while in employment, has grown from a quarter to a third over the last five years.
To tackle these challenges, are more employers looking at how to address mental health issues in the workplace and support their staff?
National Mental Health Week is a good time to ask this question, and we think they are. We are seeing a growing number of companies prioritising their employees’ wellbeing and putting in place strategies that support and improve both their physical and mental health.
Mental health trends in the workplace
In February, we published our latest wellbeing report, ‘Employee Wellbeing Research 2017: The evolution of workplace wellbeing in the UK,’ in association with Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA) and it uncovered several trends about mental health.
Some 45 per cent of companies have a clearly-defined wellbeing strategy in place, compared to less than a third (30 per cent) in 2016, and 82 per cent of these strategies include mental health, with a further 15 per cent saying they plan to add mental health initiatives to their strategy in 2017.
The research also highlighted that more than half (56 per cent) of respondents believe that mental health support is one of the most effective wellbeing initiatives for their business, together with employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and on-site medical support.
One of the ways some companies are dealing with mental health is through EAPs, which continue to be the top wellbeing initiative currently offered in the workplace, with 89 per cent of respondents having them as a wellbeing benefit. EAPs are proven to help people cope with personal or work-related issues that are causing distress and can be an effective way to manage mental health at work.
The research also revealed two of the fastest-growing wellbeing areas for this year are financial education or guidance, and sleep management, both of which can impact mental wellbeing.
More than a quarter of companies (27 per cent) plan to add financial education or guidance to their wellness strategy over the next 12 months, and almost half (49 per cent) will over the next few years. The figures also show that financial education will potentially grow by 83 per cent over the next few years, as more employers recognise the stress that personal financial concerns can cause employees.
And the number of companies including sleep in their wellbeing strategy is set to double from 42 per cent to 88 per cent this year. This may involve addressing issues in the workplace such as stress, long working hours, work-life balance, as well as suggesting ways people can get a better night’s sleep. Having poor quality sleep, not only affects an employee’s performance, it can also exacerbate their stress levels.
Recent research from Erasmus University in Rotterdam suggests lack of sleep can impact work, social skills and performance, leading to poor decision-making, communication, and empathy with others.
Introducing ‘mindfulness’ sessions, is also becoming more common in the workplace. The research found 39 per cent of respondents plan to introduce mindfulness sessions over the next few years as a way of addressing specific concerns about the mental health of employees who may have ‘heavy workloads’ or be at risk of’ ‘burn out’.
All this is good news for employees suffering with mental health problems and demonstrates the many ways companies are offering their support. We have seen a notable increase in companies providing access to services such as counselling, mental first aiders and EAPs, plus addressing newer wellbeing areas such as sleep management and financial education.
Importance of line manager training
Another focus for companies addressing mental health issues is to provide their line managers with training that enables them to better support and manage employees with mental health conditions. Without the right training, line managers are often unaware of the best way to manage someone with mental illness.
Consequently, employees may not feel comfortable talking to their line manager and may be in the dark about any employer-funded support services that might be available for them. If line managers were better trained and had the resources to proactively manage employee mental health problems, and ensure the right support, it would reduce long term absences and tackle some of the stigma around mental illness.
It seems more companies are recognising this, as our wellbeing research found over three-quarters (76 per cent) of wellbeing training for line managers covers stress and resilience.
Line managers have a crucial role to play, as they are perfectly placed to spot the warning signs of stress, anxiety and depression in their employees, and it’s essential they are properly equipped to support the company’s overall wellbeing strategy and are trained to make the best use of the resources available.
The current strain on the NHS, in terms of funding and availability of treatment for mental illness, means it’s more important than ever for employers to take a proactive approach in managing mental health. Many are also recognising that their competitive edge depends on them having engaged, healthy and proactive employees. Having a well-thought-out wellbeing strategy in place to tackle both mental and physical health is no longer ‘nice to have’, but an area of focus that is growing in importance for UK employers.
Beate O’Neil is head of wellbeing at Punter Southall Health & Protection.