There are practical ways to tackle mental ill health

Despite mental wellbeing receiving increased focus, employers are still losing out with high levels of absence and disengagement among highly-stressed employees. I believe that more can be done to reduce workplace mental health issues.

Unlike physical health, mental wellbeing isn’t always easy to spot, or even define. But with incidents of sickness absence doubling among workers with high stress levels, anxiety or depression, as Willis Towers Watson’s latest Global Benefits and Attitudes Survey (GBAS) shows, it is imperative that employers are aware of and willing to tackle the often-invisible issue of poor mental health.

Commonly surrounded by stigma, mental health problems can have a significant impact on employees’ overall sense of wellbeing, ultimately leading to reduced productivity, disengagement and decreased resilience to stress.

The GBAS survey explores the extent to which benefits individually and collectively shape employees’ actions; how closely they align with employees’ employment and lifestyle priorities; and their links to stress, absence, presenteeism and work engagement.

The research focuses on four main aspects of employee attitudes and how they affect the benefit deal: financial wellbeing, health wellbeing, retirement expectations and benefits preferences.

The 2017 GBAS report The employee voice: more security, more flexibility, more choice, published in November 2017, revealed that almost one in three (29 per cent) of UK employees suffered from severe stress, anxiety or depression in the past two years alone.

However, the research also identified that only half (51 per cent) of employers were taking proactive steps to reduce work-related stress.

The survey of 2,824 employees at medium and large private sector companies in the UK also showed that excessive stress can lead to poor lifestyle choices – 61 per cent of highly-stressed workers also stated that they had a poor diet, exercised infrequently, had a greater tendency to smoke and experienced sleep deprivation.

Employers should take the lead to stop this risky cycle from spiralling out of control. Creating an open and supportive culture around mental health can encourage staff to seek support in the workplace.

Opening the lines of communication allows employers to better understand the root of the problem and facilitate a more tailored approach to effective support.

Organisations can raise awareness of mental health by regularly adding the topic to the agenda in one-to-ones, while team meetings can encourage conversations, enhance greater understanding among colleagues, help to build internal support networks and increase resilience.

But there is a challenge to overcome. According to GBAS, almost half (45 per cent) of employees are not comfortable disclosing stress or anxiety issues to their manager. 

Training line managers to recognise the symptoms that indicate a worker is struggling can enable early intervention before the problems escalate. When the topic is out in the open, it breaks down barriers and removes any fears that may inhibit staff from admitting that a problem exists and from asking for assistance.

Employers can offer cost-effective employee assistance programmes as a benefit, providing employees with an outsourced, confidential outlet. Due to the sensitivities surrounding mental health, EAPs provide staff with telephone access to independent trained counsellors and offer a range of services from confidential assistance to deal with work-related stress or personal problems, to debt advice, which can give staff a lifeline at times when their mental wellbeing is out of balance.

More and more, employers are training some staff as mental health first-aiders. This does not mean that they will become counsellors, but does give them the confidence to intervene when a problem is observed.

Technology is increasingly used by employees – the GBAS study found that one in two workers in the UK are using technology to manage their health. Available via mobile devices or iPads, mental health apps are accessible on-the-go, and many are free or inexpensive to download. Employees can also gain support ranging from cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to mood enhancing, anxiety and stress management apps.

Employers should take a proactive approach by both raising awareness of the availability of these tools and by encouraging staff to access these at key times of the day – incorporating this into morning routines, over lunch breaks or before bedtime.

Maintaining positive mental wellbeing and building resilience should be considered as an ongoing priority by employers, encouraging a preventative approach and helping to foster healthy attitudes.

The employee voice: more security, more flexibility, more choice at: tinyurl.com/y8bhmjoe

Mike Blake is director and wellbeing lead, Willis Towers Watson