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Taking mental health support to the next level

Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer - BHSF

Despite recent investment in services by employers to tackle mental health issues in the workplace, the crisis is far from over. The time has come to consider a different approach. There’s a need to move towards more personalised support.

To tackle any problem effectively, you must acknowledge that it exists. The number of reports around the amount poor mental health is costing UK businesses has helped propel the topic up the corporate agenda. Deloitte say that figure is up to £42 billion and rising. High profile figures like BBC reporter Fergal Keane[1], who announced he was stepping away from front-line reporting due to post-traumatic stress disorder, have also helped to shed light on the issue and the tremendous strain it can put on employees.

Awareness of the issue has never been higher. You only need to look at the number of companies that marked October’s World Mental Health Day, sharing messages of support on social media, to see how high that awareness has become. While words are important and vital to get the journey started, the next stage is for organisations to find ways they can help and support all their employees to start improving mental health in the workplace.

What support do employers offer?
While the messages around mental health are positive, when you investigate what employers currently do, there still seems to be a lack of action. According to the CIPD’s Health and Well-Being at Work report in 2019, only 9% of employers have a standalone mental health policy for employees. A third say they do cover mental health as part of another policy and around a fifth say they are working on a policy. Even if you add all these groups together, around four out of ten employers have no guidelines in place or plans in motion to help managers deal with mental health issues.

The same report highlighted that less than half of organisations provide mental health training for their workforce, whether it be support for managers, mental health first aid training or support to build personal resilience. This figure is climbing year on year, but there is still a long way to go.

In research BHSF conducted in 2018 on mental health provision[2], only 21% of respondents said their organisation offered dedicated training or support for employees’ mental health and wellbeing, such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). While this figure may have climbed a little since the research was conducted, it still indicates that employers are not matching their words with actions and much more could be done to support the mental health of employees. A study from Business in the Community found that around 91% of managers felt their actions affect their staff’s wellbeing. Only 24% of managers have received any training in mental health. The lack of training and sensitivity can lead to a culture of silence around mental health and wellbeing at work.

Not all mental health conditions are the same
Mental health is an umbrella term that covers many different conditions, such as depression, anxiety, OCD or PTSD to name a few. The symptoms and treatment required for each one is different and what is effective for one patient, may not be the right approach for another.

Most of the support currently offered through EAPs is solely focused on counselling, which isn’t always the most appropriate treatment. There is also a limit on the number of sessions covered, meaning there is no guarantee the problem will be resolved by the time the course of treatment comes to an end.

There is no way an employer would expect an employee’s treatment for a musculoskeletal condition to come to an end before the problem was resolved. That is not a satisfactory situation for anyone, yet this is the provision that many provide for mental health. If employers are to make a difference in this area, they must consider how they can ensure employees get the most appropriate treatment and have access to this for as long as is necessary.

Generational differences
For the past few years, there has been a sharp focus on getting people to talk about the issue. Time to Talk was set up in 2007 to get the ball rolling. In the time since, attitudes towards mental health in the UK have improved steadily and they have recorded a 12.7% rise in positive attitudes over that period of time[3].

The BHSF research from 2018 showed that this message seems to be hitting home particularly with younger people and they seem much more willing to be open about their mental health. For example, 57% of employees aged 25 to 34 said they would definitely feel comfortable talking to their boss about a mental health issue, compared to just 14% of those aged 45 to 54.

Those now entering the workforce have grown up at a time when mental health is being more freely discussed and they see it as less of a taboo subject than their older counterparts. 42% of those aged 18-24 said they didn’t feel mental health problems carried a stigma in the workplace. Just 30% of those aged 45 and over said the same. While the dial does appear to be moving, there is still a long way to go, as the majority of employees, whatever their age, still feel the stigma is there.

Adapting the approach
While attitudes are shifting, for many, their mental health is still a deeply private subject that they don’t want to share with their manager or peers. Only 15% said they would tell their boss if they were struggling with anxiety, depression or stress. Employers need to find a way to provide support for these employees, which means they don’t need to be public about their struggles but can access help themselves in a confidential way. This will enable more employees feel comfortable in taking that first step which can seem impossible.

For younger employees, who do have more confidence to share their mental health issues at work, the challenge is to ensure that managers have the right training to be able to help them effectively. They need to know what help is available so they can signpost this to their employees and how best they can support them to be well in work, through changing working practices and making reasonable adjustments.

Turning words into action
The latest annual REBA employee wellbeing research published last year, revealed that mental health is now the number one wellbeing priority at board level[4].  The message is getting through to the highest levels at last. The time is now to turn those words into actions. Effective mental health support needs to be planned and supported from the top and embedded within the business.

It is about bringing services together that offer a comprehensive range of solutions suitable for treating a range of conditions. There must also be an understanding of the barriers that stop people coming forward and asking for help. It has to be made as easy and painless as possible for employees to take that difficult step.

With a staggering 70 million working days being lost every year due to poor mental health[5], this is a major issue that businesses must address. Taking a holistic, joined-up approach that recognises a sophisticated solution is required for this complex issue is the way forward and we at BHSF are doing just that.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51236199

[2] BHSF survey conducted with 1000 employees through WPR Agency, 2018

[3] https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/home/about-us/our-impact

[4] https://corporate-adviser.com/companies-see-mental-health-as-key-to-employee-wellbeing/

[5] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/mental-health-workplace

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