These days, the subject of Mental health is frequently in the news, be it reporting the stretched NHS resources and long waiting lists or be it high-profile people sharing their stories or supporting awareness initiatives.
The truth is that awareness amongst the general public of mental health issues is now very good and this can only serve to “de-stigmatise” these issues and encourage more people to be open about their problems and seek help.
In the last five years we have seen support for mental health grow from 8% of our workload to 21% (now on a par with all forms of cancer), so the evidence points to more people seeking help than ever before.
In addition, what is often less well recognised is the fact that most, if not all, serious physical health conditions also have a mental impact, and if the mental or emotional issues are not addressed, can severely hinder physical recovery.
Role of employers
Any employer has a keen interest in having their employees healthy, motivated and making a good contribution to the business. So, they cannot ignore mental health in all its guises.
Employers are often unsure what to put in place to help employees, and in our experience, the majority of employees are still nervous about discussing their mental health with their employer. Therefore a “stale-mate” situation is often the outcome.
Employers need to encourage a culture of openness, and train their staff in how to look for signs of mental health in their colleagues and employees, and make services available to help from the earliest opportunity.
Training and support materials are available from many sources including Acas and charities such as Mind and SANE.
External Support Services
In our experience, employees find the opportunity to get confidential help from a service external to their employer invaluable.
Employers can provide external support services either by sourcing directly from a supplier, or more frequently from an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), or through insurance products such as Group Income Protection, Critical Illness or Private Medical Insurance.
Not all support services are the same, so when selecting such services, employers should take care to ensure that it is of high quality. For example services can range from a light-touch helpline for a one-off telephone call, through to long-term support from a dedicated nurse; some purely offer counselling, and others make a clinical assessment to determine the most appropriate therapy – which could be counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy or others.
Getting help early is key to managing mental health conditions. Whilst counselling and other therapies are available on the NHS, waiting lists can be very long and, in our experience, the condition will more than likely deteriorate during the wait.
Where employers make support services available to staff in a way that is easily accessible, such as the company intranet, then employees can seek help early. This can often avoid the employee becoming very unwell, and possibly avoid or at least minimise absence.
The expedited provision of appropriate therapy or counselling will obviously get employees on the road to recovery much more quickly and avoid an unpleasant and costly deterioration for all.
Managers and HR teams who are trained to spot the signs of mental health problems can play a vital role in encouraging employees to use support services at the earliest opportunity. When these are provided confidentially and conveniently, this can be a great comfort to employees.
Mental health issues don’t just suddenly go away, recovery is usually a very slow process, and issues can easily reoccur.
A support service which provides long-term support, especially when the employee has a one-to-one relationship with a professional, can mitigate the chances of a severe reoccurrence. Support can continue, even when an employee is back at work, and any problems can be swiftly picked up, resulting in a much better outcome for the employee and the employer.
Preparing to go back to work
The prospect of returning to work after any extended period of absence can be daunting for many people, this is exacerbated when employees are contemplating returning to work when in recovery from a mental illness.
Support is vital for the employee to develop coping strategies and develop the confidence to ask for adjustments or consideration within the workplace.
Employers should also be mindful of how an employee is likely to feel, and rather than make assumptions, sensitively ask how they can best help the employee to settle back into working life.
The Business Case
Mental Health is a major cause of employee absence, according to Acas: Mental health problems cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence, so employers clearly need to take action.
Culture, training, awareness and a good quality external support service can ensure that employees who find themselves with mental health issues can quickly get help and hopefully avoid them progressing to more severe conditions.
For the workforce as a whole, a caring and supportive employer will engender loyalty and engagement.
So the business case is clear, early intervention is key, and support is available. Not all support is the same, and it’s important that employers access specialists in mental health that can provide long-term support to get better outcomes for their employees and their business.