Charles Alberts: What is driving mental health today?

charles alberts

For a mental health programme to be successful, the employer must get to grips with the problems affecting today’s workforce, including some that might be considered taboo.

In Mind’s 2017/18 Workplace wellbeing index, published in October 2018, 48% of the 40,000 employees surveyed said that they had experienced a mental health problem while in their current role, but half of those had not spoken to their employer about it.

Meeting today’s needs

Some of the challenges that are driving or contributing to poor mental health are not easy ones to raise in the workplace.

Divorce and distressed relationships affect employees’ ability to concentrate at work, but they can also have more severe consequences. Men, suicide and society: Why disadvantaged men in mid-life die by suicide, published by Samaritans in September 2012, states that the risk of suicide among divorced men is almost three times that of married men

Gender dysphoria, namely the discomfort or distress caused when someone’s gender identity does not match the sex they were born with, is starting to appear on workplace agendas. Transgender employees have high instances of anxiety and depression, and up to 50% have reported discrimination and harassment at work, as recorded by Inequality among lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender groups in the UK: a review of evidence, published by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 2016.

Mobile technology gives us flexibility around where and when we work, but employees may feel pressure to be available at any time. That can be stressful and result in poor quality sleep, which has an estimated cost of around £30 billion a year, according to RAND Europe’s 2016 report, Why sleep matters: the economic costs of insufficient sleep.

The ONS’s National Population Projections: 2016-based statistical bulletin, October 2017, states that the proportion of the population aged 85 and over is projected to double over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Carers UK, published in October 2015, found that 54% of carers have suffered depression because of their caring role, and that carers felt anxious (77%) and stressed (83%).

Finally, organisations often do not feel comfortable about addressing addiction problems. However, openness is vital, particularly as addiction can be intertwined with other mental health issues.

Employees may face any of a raft of additional difficult circumstances which impact their mental health: money and debt concerns, lone working, racism, bullying and harassment, even domestic abuse. Clearly, this is a lot for employers to consider, but an appropriate mental health strategy can make a huge positive difference.

Build an effective strategy

Employers should base their strategy around a framework, asking themselves a series of questions: How can they prevent mental health issues and keep employees well? If an employee has an undiagnosed mental health condition, how can the workplace facilitate early diagnosis? With a diagnosed mental health condition, how can employers ensure employees get the right treatments and therapies, in a timely way? How can employers support employees who are away from work with a mental health condition, and enable them to be their best when they return? 

Organisations then need to get the right benefits in place. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs), private medical insurance and occupational health services can all be valuable parts of that mix. Then, effective communications are key, so that employees know how to access these services when they need them.

Employers might also consider creating working groups to help build a culture where people can talk openly about their mental health. This should include business leaders and other stakeholders, such as HR, marketing, legal and the finance team. Clear and vocal support from management helps to send a strong positive message.

A long way to go 

The annual cost of mental health issues to employers is between £33 billion and £42 billion, but only four in 10 organisations have a mental health policy, and only 24% of managers have received training in supporting staff, according to the government-sponsored Thriving at work: The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, October 2017.

While some employers and industries have already worked hard to tackle issues surrounding mental health, there is still a long way to go.

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All employers are at different stages in this process, so it is important not to assume that they will be able to change everything immediately. Many employees are suffering in silence, though, so anything employers can do to open up support and de-stigmatise mental health issues is of vital importance.

Charles Alberts is head of health management at Aon