Misconceptions about mental health are hampering the treatment of the subject by employers. Joy Reymond explains how they can improve their approach.
With a quarter of people now experiencing a mental health problem at some point in their life, managing mental illness in the workplace is becoming ever more important.
Recent research from the Royal College of GPs revealed a sharp increase in the number of people experiencing mental health issues since the recession but, according to a recent OECD report, employers still have some way to go in supporting them at work.
Although understanding of such issues is growing, misconceptions remain, especially in the workplace. Once thought of as something that happened to an unfortunate few, as mental health problems now affect one in four people, stress has become one of the top two causes of sickness absence.
Mental health is an issue that will affect all businesses, so employers need to keep pace with these developments and make sure they are offering the right support to staff.
The role employers can play is important. The OECD report recognised this and, as part of its recommendation, called for better policies and practices by employers to help people deal with mental health issues and get back to work when they are ready.
The benefits of this are clear for both employees and employers. Many employees find that staying in work can be an important step back to mental wellbeing, as worthwhile and fulfilling employment can bolster their sense of self worth, provide a sense of purpose and help them feel part of a team.
Employers also reap the benefits by retaining people with vital skills and expertise, and in the process fulfil a moral obligation to staff to provide a supportive and healthy workplace.
So what practical steps can employers take to improve support for staff with mental health issues? The key is a combination of effective communication, comprehensive training for line managers and tangible support as part of a well-rounded employee benefits package.
Creating a culture of open communication
When it comes to mental health it is important to act before issues arise in the first place – but one of the biggest barriers to managing mental health issues is the reluctance of staff to discuss them. A Time to Change survey in 2011 revealed that 67% of people with mental health problems felt unable to inform their employer for fear of how they would react.
Creating a culture of openness and awareness in the workplace can reduce stigma and encourage staff to raise issues before they develop into something more serious.
If employees don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their problems, then concerns that may have been resolved early on might only surface once more severe interventions are necessary.
Employers can do some very inexpensive but innovative things to get the conversation going. For example, simple initiatives like organising a mental health coffee morning to raise funds for a mental health charity enable employees to start talking about the issue of mental health in a safe environment, and send a very positive message about the employer’s attitude to mental health.
In turn, maintaining open, regular and meaningful communication after issues arise is paramount. Misunderstandings, excessive workloads or a stressful environment can exacerbate any problems, so it’s important to maintain a constant dialogue between employees, the HR team and line managers.
Employers can often feel reluctant to talk about these issues for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, but open communication will help them understand how their employee is coping with the amount and type of work they are given. The employer is then better able to strike the right balance so that any affected staff feel both productive and valued, without being overloaded.
It will also help employees to identify possible modifications to their duties and different working options such as flexible hours, which can support them through their difficulties.
Upskilling line managers
It is not just staff with mental health issues who need support. Managerial staff and line managers are usually on the front line when it comes to handling mental health issues, but many won’t have any formal training or previous experience in dealing with them. It’s important that employers take steps to provide the right training and resources for them ahead of time to make sure they don’t feel out of their depth if one of their line managers should fall ill.
They also need ongoing support if this happens. Line managers can often find themselves handling a number of internal and external tasks at any given time, including the responsibility of making sure employees are happy and healthy.
It can be a challenge to devote enough time towards supporting employee wellbeing when urgent factors such as productivity targets might seem more pressing.
Employers should therefore assist and not penalise managers who have reduced productivity as a result of making adjustments for certain employees. This ongoing support and training to upskill managers so they too can spot and offer support around mental health will pay off for employers in the long term.
Employers can provide tangible support for staff through their employee benefits package – before, during and after someone develops a mental health condition. A good wellbeing strategy – including anything from flexible working to a good work-life balance – can help create a positive and supportive working environment and minimise the risk of mental health issues developing.
Employee assistance programmes can also help to support staff as soon as symptoms appear by offering preventative measures such as counselling, nipping small issues in the bud before they develop into more acute problems.
If, however, these problems do deteriorate and someone has to go on sick leave, benefits like income protection or sick pay insurance provide security of income, reassuring sufferers and their colleagues that they won’t face financial difficulties as a result of their condition. They also provide cost certainty for employers, protecting them from the unpredictable financial impact of staff absence.
When staff are ready to return to work, the employee benefits should also come with vocational rehabilitation services to ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace. Specialist rehabilitation consultants can work with employers and employees to develop a tailored, flexible and phased return-to-work plan, which will help overcome barriers and support the return of staff when they are ready.
For employers, these measures can reduce the loss of talent and preserve staff morale, while also avoiding the costs of recruiting, training and paying replacement staff. The professional claims, absence management and rehabilitation services included in IP policies can reduce the administrative burden too. This can be particularly important to smaller businesses, which often won’t have a dedicated HR department or OH service.
The road to recovery
Many people will develop a mental health issue during their working life, and many will still want to make a valuable contribution to their workplace by offering up their skills, talent and expertise.
Employers simply can’t afford to fall behind by not offering the right support for affected staff. With mental health fast rising up the agenda, it’s important that employers understand the issues and are prepared for them – both in terms of offering the right support to staff and protecting their business from the potential impact.
Joy Reymond is head of rehabilitation services at Unum