Benefits to support sensitive health issues

Challenging and sensitive health conditions such as mental illness, cancer and weight problems can be difficult for both employers and employees to address in the workplace.



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  • Support for staff with sensitive health problems include exercise, healthy eating and counselling.
  • Staff have a right to confidentiality under the Human Rights Act 1998, and therefore in most cases do not have to disclose personal medical information to their employer. 
  • Eating disorders and mental illnesses can be particularly challenging for employers to address.

The Group Risk Development (Grid) 2014 Employer research published in October 2014, found that stress and mental illness are the main causes of sickness absence. 

Mental illness

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at charity Mind, believes that when it comes to tackling mental health issues,prevention and treatment are of equal importance. “Many people with mental health problems perform their role to a high standard, but may need extra support, just as any other employee might if they were experiencing a physical health problem.” she says.

However, according to Sue Weir, chief executive of health cash plan provider Medicash, many people feel far more comfortable talking about physical problems than mental health issues. 

“We need to create a culture where people feel empowered to talk about any issues they may have and don’t feel ashamed,” she says. 

A report called Breaking the silence , published by Bupa in October 2014, identified that despite employers’ efforts to create an open culture where staff can discuss issues such as depression and anxiety many employees still do not feel they can be open about mental health problems. 

Its research found that 70% of staff feel they cannot speak candidly about such issues and a large proportion of leaders label mentally ill employees as unpredictable (27%), erratic (22%) and weak (22%).

“There is a taboo around talking about mental health, particularly in the workplace,” says Mamo. ”Clearly, people still don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health, so it’s important that organisations proactively manage staff wellbeing and create an open culture where their employees are able to talk about wellbeing without fear of discrimination or being perceived as incapable.”

Men suffering from health issues, be these emotional or physical, can be particularly difficult to reach. “Men are less likely to seek help for both emotional and physical problems. When they do seek help, they are less likely to discuss emotional problems and tend to focus on physical issues instead,” explains Mamo. 

Mind’s Time to Change campaign, which launched in 2009, provides information and tips on addressing mental health in the workplace for managers and employees. As part of the campaign, more than 74,000 people have pledged to end mental health stigma, including Steve Holliday, chief executive officer of utility firm National Grid, who made his pledge in December 2015, and encouraged his workforce to do the same. 

National Grid has run a mental and emotional wellbeing campaign since 2012. The campaign, called ‘The Elephant in the Room’, is intended to encourage openness about mental health and includes informative seminars and consultations designed to allow employees to discuss any problems they are having with their managers. Andy Buxton, health and wellbeing manager at National Grid, says that between 65 and 70 employees a month use the service. 

Stress is also a common problem employees experience at work. According to research by Mind, published in November 2014 to mark National Stress Awareness Day, 56% of employee respondents find work very or fairly stressful.

Mind’s Mamo says employers can tackle mental health issues by ensuring staff receive one-to-one support from a line manager, colleague or medical professional. Flexible-working arrangements and extra time off for appointments often form part of the solution.

It is also beneficial for employees who are absent from work for a long period to stay in touch with other colleagues. This is particularly the case where they may be suffering from serious conditions such as cancer.

Listening cogs

Liz Egan, work and cancer programme manager at charity Macmillan, says: “It would reduce a lot of worries, especially because people with cancer often say they feel out of touch.”

Although some workers opt to discuss their health problems at work, under the Human Rights Act 1998, employers have no legal right to know about about an employee’s health condition. Therefore, details of an employee’s illness may only come to light if they are signed off work by a doctor. In cases where employees have opened up, however, managers can obtain their permission to ask a health provider for advice about the person’s ability to perform their role, the likely duration of absence and any workplace adjustments that need to be made. 

Katharine Moxham, spokesperson at Grid, believes that line managers play a vital role in these conversations. “Line managers will generally know what might be most effective for that individual employee, but there’s no one-size-fits-all,” she says. 

Research by YouGov, published in October 2014 by rehabilitation and income protection provider Unum in partnership with cancer charity Maggie’s, found that around 59% of men who have completed cancer treatment would feel comfortable discussing support with their employer. The research also found that 62% of respondents felt they received good workplace support. In addition, 79% thought it would be helpful if their employer had access to advice on how to support employees in returning to work. 

Medicash’s Weir, says: “Staff certainly have shared their diagnosis, but for this to happen they must feel valued and confident that their employer genuinely cares about their wellbeing.”

Meanwhile, Laura Horton, HR manager at charity Cancer Research UK, says encouraging healthy behaviour through workplace initiatives not only reduces the risk of cancer; it also boosts productivity. 

Weight issues

Obesity is also a burning issue for employers concerned with improving the health and wellbeing of staff. The majority (64%) of UK adults are overweight, according to a Public Health England survey published in February 2014.

While a healthier diet and exercise are well known to prevent excessive weight gain, what is not so obvious is how to tackle a sensitive issue that an individual may be self-concious about.

Steve Tagg, human resources director at Aggregate, says: “Many people are concerned that if they raise an issue then they will be treated differently or that those around them will not understand or support them.”

National Grid’s Buxton adds that problems linked to excess weight are interconnected and can be dealt with together.

He says: “Encouraging staff to get more active to prevent issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases can be done through providing healthy-eating options.”

Every spring, National Grid runs active team events, such as sports activities and races. The firm’s 2015 event will focus on combating diabetes.

Eating disorders

Workplace health and wellbeing programmes may also be called upon to help employees to manage eating disorders, which affect a total of more than one and half million people in the UK, according to the NHS’ latest Adult psychiatric morbidity survey, published inJanuary 2007 with the next report due in 2016. 

An eating disorder can arise when people link eating or not eating certain foods with how they feel. Charity Beat’s study, Eating disorders in the workplace, published in March 2012, found that these conditions are most likely to affect women aged between 16 and 30. 

According to its study, early intervention is key and may prevent a hospital referral. However, while looking at diet is important, treatment also needs to address underlying psychological issues and should therefore include talking therapies.

Sensitive and hard-to-tackle health and wellbeing issues can be a heavy burden for both the employees affected and their employers. This means it is important for organisations to have effective support networks and medical services that ensure staff suffering from sensitive health conditions feel understood and well informed about employee benefits that may help them. 

Case study: Norton Rose Fulbright focuses on mental health

Norton Rose

Norton Rose Fulbright held events for staff to highlight the issue of mental health in the run-up to World Mental Health Awareness Day in 2014.

The global law firm launched its mental health awareness strategy in October 2014. In the week running up to World Mental Health Awareness Day it held a series of lunchtime talks for staff in conjunction with providers including Bupa and Roodlane Medical, as well as local GPs and gyms. These were intended to highlight the importance of a good work-life balance and good overall health.

The final event was a talk exploring how to eradicate the stigma around mental health problems.

Vicky Rose, reward, pensions and mobility manager at Norton Rose Fulbright, says: “Mental health affects performance, productivity and relationships in the workplace and it is therefore essential that we identify and support individuals with mental health issues at an early stage to prevent detrimental long-lasting effects.”

Rose explains that legal practices can be stressful working environments where employees have to cope with hectic schedules and extensive hours.

The law firm aims to ensure an open and supportive culture by offering counselling and a 24/7 employee assistance programme (EAP), which enables employees to talk confidentially about their problems. 

Rose says: “Individuals sometimes feel more comfortable using this service than sharing personal information with their manager or HR department and they can be assured that no details will be divulged.”