Eugene Farrell: Tackling stress head on – a business priority for 2020

We are at a critical moment in the nation’s mental health. Statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in October 2019 revealed that in Great Britain, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of working days lost in 2018 and 2019.

It is a big issue that has not escaped business leaders, with more than three-fifths (62%) of the HR professionals polled by the Reward and Employee Benefits Association for its June 2019 Employee wellbeing research saying it is their boards’ biggest wellbeing concern.

Much has been done, and will continue to be done, to raise mental health awareness, driven by awareness days and wellbeing initiatives. However, unless employers are able to join the sum of the parts, namely communications, resources, policies, training and the like, and offer both a preventive and supportive culture that addresses whole health, the upward trend in mental health issues looks set to continue.

Holistic health

Poor physical health can lead to increased risk of developing mental health problems. Similarly, mental health issues can adversely affect physical wellbeing. Additionally, mental health and other physical health conditions have separate but additive negative effects on wellbeing, so it is imperative wellbeing strategies consider both.

Pav Powar, employee benefits consultant at Avision Young, says: “It’s about understanding the employee as a whole: personal issues, financial issues, physical issues. It’s about providing that integrated approach in line with real life.”

Organisations’ wellbeing programmes should, therefore, seek to address and support all contributing factors, as well as consider how individuals function, and the support available to them at every stage, when they are healthy, at risk, unwell and on the mend.

Healthy or at risk

Employers are grappling with the complexities of identifying and supporting employees at these early stages and, arguably more importantly, preventing them from arising in the first place. Assessing employee health risks and providing suitable support at time of need is paramount.

With mental health, the capability and capacity of line managers and fellow employees to support and recognise an individual needs to be vastly up-weighted. Seminars, mental health awareness and health coaching all have a part to play in gaining confidence in spotting concerns and signposting to support, but these need to be properly integrated.

Great strides have also been made within digital resources to help individuals identify, understand and better manage their own personal triggers.

Unwell through to recovery

An employee assistance programme (EAP) is an invaluable benefit, yet in some organisations utilisation levels by employees remain low. However, there is a marked usage difference in those organisations where line managers are familiar with the service and are active and consistent in promoting its use.

This same signposting requirement is true of benefit providers. Do the third parties involved triage effectively at an employee’s time of need?

Organisations should consider the integration of occupational health, EAPs, private healthcare and critical incident management. People should not have to struggle with depression or anxiety on their own.

It is vital to act on meaningful insight rather than just on numbers. A well-functioning wellbeing programme should demonstrate significant health outcomes and highlight further opportunities for intervention.

We are at the dawn of a new decade; never has there been a greater need for businesses to play an active role in supporting employees’ mental health. The best results will come from employers with sustained programmes and which keep listening, learning and adapting to meet new challenges and opportunities as, and when, they arise.

Eugene Farrell is mental health lead at Axa PPP Healthcare