Liz Walker: Why early intervention matters for workplace mental health

Last year alone, mental ill-health was the primary cause of long-term absence for 22 percent of organisations, with employees feeling too stressed or anxious to face going in to work. This was up from 13 percent in 2016.

However, 45 percent of those who take time off for mental health reasons give their employers another reason for their absence.

Symptoms of mental health can build up when not properly recognised or evaluated, but they’re hard to fight when so many employees don’t feel confident enough to open-up about how they’re feeling.

It’s vital to create a workplace culture in which people can talk about what’s worrying them, whether it’s emotional or money worries, struggles with addiction or personal troubles.

If problems are raised when they first arise, businesses can support struggling employees from the start before problems really begin to take their toll.

Here’s how to encourage your employees to access early mental health support and provide the first line of defence against mental ill health.

Initiate the movement

Many who suffer from mental health problems don’t get the help they need straight away. Many wait, on average, ten years between first experiencing symptoms and receiving help.

The Mental Health Commission believes the most effective way to tackle these concerns is to reduce the ‘prevention gap’. This is the number of people who would benefit from receiving preventative treatment, against the number who currently receive it.

As people spend so much time at work, business managers can play a key role in establishing the necessary advice, by building a workplace culture where employees feel empowered to seek preventative support for issues which may have a harder-hitting impact in the future if left unaddressed.

Letting staff know there are structures in place – like wellbeing resources or an employee assistance programme – helps normalise the topic of mental health and decreases stigma.

Before you start applying any changes though, make sure you conduct the necessary research to recognise how helpful different support options will be for your staff.

Prepare managers

Creating a supportive culture in your business needs to start from the top, so staff feel they can approach line managers about sensitive issues, without worrying about confidentiality or being treated differently.

Prepare leaders with the skills needed to spot premature signs of mental ill health. Encouraging them to learn more about it and how to spot signs, in order to filter messages through your company.

Line managers work closely and communicate with their teams daily, so they’ll be well placed to notice any changes and promote timely interventions. Provide them with mental health first aid training so they know how to support those already undergoing difficulties too.

There’s no simple answer for someone suffering from mental ill health, but you can prepare leaders with proactive and reactive support measures, so they feel confident assisting in a variety of circumstances.

Encourage employees

Mental ill health can be difficult to spot, not just in someone else but in yourself as well. This is because stress affects the way our brain performs and impairs our ability to think clearly.

Common short-term responses to stress are reduced reasoning and unhelpful ‘black or white’ thinking. The part of our brain dealing with fear becomes more active as part of a ‘fight or flight’ response. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to loss of memory, concentration, confidence, and even  cause or aggravate mental health problems .

Any workplace scheme providing regular mental health support and training should encourage employees to think about their own well-being too, as well as being able to spot signs of ill health in others.

Businesses can provide emotional employer-sponsored resources in a number of ways such as  employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or through early intervention methods.

At Unum we recently introduced a Mental Health Pathway scheme – an early intervention service for policy holders – which gives both employees and employers access to specialist support within 48 hours, as soon as concerns are raised.

However, when it comes to mental health education, concerns around mental illness can be very personal and employers need to take a sensitive approach for employees to feel they can open-up.

Continue the support

Mental health isn’t black and white. It’s not the case that you’re either mentally ill or completely ‘recovered’. Everyone has ups and downs throughout their lives, which is why it’s important to view optimum mental health as a continuum.

To keep up with your employees’ changing health needs, you should put adaptable structures in place to help them at all times.

Develop mechanisms for feedback and use existing wellbeing data through staff surveys, turnover, patterns from EAPs, absence data and sharing of good and poor practice to assist in updating schemes.

The common attributes of good organisations are to listen to what their employees are saying and to commit to positive changes from the start, to create the most robust support mechanisms your employees really need.

Liz Walker is HR Director at Unum UK.

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  1. I wonder why organisations cannot see the benefits of preventing the causes of strain and stress. Organisations incubate strain and stress by failing to create the working environment that substitutes the adverse events and behaviours with those that provoke everyone to feel psychologically well and perform at their peak. Waiting for people to become ill is costing organisations between £30 billion and £100 billion a year depending on what is measured. It is costing organisations far more in lack of innovation, resilience and reputation. A focus on waiting for people to become ill before doing anything is closing the door after the horse has bolted with billions of pounds. No amount of signposting services, and upskilling managers to recognise mental ill health will reduce the enormous sums being lost than by a minute amount.

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