By 2030 the challenges arising from staff mental health concerns could cost the UK economy £32.7 billion. So how can employers ensure mental health support is not ‘just a tick in the box’?
In 2016 Unum, together with our partner, The Mental Health Foundation produced “Added value: mental health as a workplace asset”.
Many companies are introducing and championing workplace mental health strategies. However, our report has shown despite this increased awareness, 42% of those with a mental health condition still don’t disclose this information to their work, because they fear discrimination and harassment.
So how can employers ensure mental health support fully benefits all employees?
Evaluate on a case-by-case basis
No one person is the same and companies should try to give managers the latitude to shape mental health support according to the needs of their teams. Everyone reacts to stress and health issues differently, so a ‘blanket approach’ is just not going to cut it.
The Financial Times’ Health at Work report shows, ill health affects corporate productivity through employee absenteeism and "presenteeism" — when staff turn up to work, but are ineffective when they get there.
Promoting more flexible work patterns, such as enabling employees to take time off for their mental health when needed or allowing remote working during difficult periods, will mean individuals are able to continue their roles effectively, as they can engage with work tasks when in the right frame of mind to do so.
Encourage cognitive hygiene
A new whitepaper from Morneau Shepell is centered around the concept of "cognitive hygiene" - the ability to effectively manage negative thinking to prevent exacerbating mental health issues.
This involves encouraging employees to learn skills such as mindfulness, meditation and keeping a good work/life balance to help them cope in difficult situations. Employers should then teach staff how to use sustainable daily actions to remind themselves to continue these practices regularly.
For example; working too many hours often leads to exhaustion and can impact an employee’s physical and mental health. As a business, you can communicate strategies for work/life balance, but employees need to know the best ways to help them keep these good habits.
Small, regular actions, such as setting an alarm to go home on time every day or making sure you take a full lunch break away from your desk, can result in long-term, positive behaviour changes, that enhance and prolong mental wellbeing.
Build ‘safe spaces’
Salesforce recently built meditation rooms on every floor of its new building in San Francisco. These 'mindfulness' zones are spaces where employees can go to seek quietness and time to relax.
Some businesses have found the creation of ‘safe spaces’ – areas designed for groups to relax and take their minds off work - to be helpful to alleviate stress. However, offerings don’t need to be overly lavish to have a positive impact.
There are cost-effective alternatives, any companies can introduce that can be just as successful. It could simply be creating a small, designated office area or even a bit of garden space, where teams are encouraged to take breaks from their hectic schedules.
Overcome barriers to disclosure
Creating an environment where mental health is discussed openly amongst employees, is one of the best ways to lessen its taboo.
Establish a mental health champions network to combat negative reactions and encourage open workplace dialogue. These are individuals who are available for informal chats with employees and can provide more detailed advice on the support available to those who might be struggling.
Businesses can also introduce Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPS), often offered with group risk products like Income Protection, for those who may need more advanced support. EAPS offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with areas causing emotional distress, from family issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental illness.
Train for ‘triggers’
Bupa research has revealed one in three line managers admit they would struggle to detect mental health issues in the workplace, but it’s imperative managers have the training to maintain positive staff relationships and ensure their team members are able to perform well.
Training should not only focus on reactive measures, but also teach managers to spot ‘triggers’, to hold sensitive conversations and know how to signpost to effective support.
Some may benefit from being sent away on a one or two-day course, but many others will get significant benefit from a lunchtime or breakfast session. Offering short and frequent training opportunities will also ensure maximum attendance.
To create a positive environment supporting mental health you need to build a general culture of health, combining preventative and reactive programmes for your employees. There is no "silver bullet", but the most important ingredient for success is a commitment from the top down to invest in employees’ physical and mental wellbeing.