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- Initiatives that demonstrate employers are putting mental wellbeing on the agenda can encourage more open dialogue about mental health in the workplace.
- Employers can incorporate a preventative approach within health and wellbeing strategies by utilising the aditional services offered through group risk provision.
- Early notification can ensure employees receive the support they need to recover and return to work as quickly as possible.
Employee wellness has become an increasingly prominent item on employers’ agendas as the relationship between physical, mental and financial wellbeing on the one hand, and staff motivation and productivity on the other, has come to the fore.
While a number of high-profile public campaigns such as Rethink Mental Illness and Mind’s ‘Time to change’ have helped to address the stigma around mental health, many employers are also expanding their support for staff to take mental wellbeing into account, explains John Attley, engagement manager at the National House Building Council (NHBC).
“Whether it is staff or management, everyone is seeing that talking about mental health, not just mental ill-health, is important and that there are benefits on an individual level, as well as a corporate level,” he says.
For example, NHBC ran a lunch-and-learn session on the topic ‘Meet your mind’, which proved to be popular with staff. The lunchtime session was particularly well attended, which Attley sees as an indication that employees’ interest in mental health has widened beyond coping techniques for stress and depression, to also encompass mental wellbeing more generally.
As the area of focus has expanded, so too has its application, as a growing number of employers and employees take an interest in mechanisms that can provide support both within and outside of the workplace. “Recognising that we have mental health wherever we are is really important,” adds Attley.
Mental wellbeing in the workplace
Employees facing mental health issues can look to the group risk provision offered by their employer to access programmes and services that deliver the assistance needed. Tom Gaynor, employee benefits director at MetLife UK, urges employers to encourage staff requiring support and help getting back to work to contact their group risk benefits provider as early as possible: “One of the best ways to help promote mental wellness and help achieve better outcomes is to ensure that, if you do have insured staff, the insurer knows about [the issue] really early on because then there is an interest from the insurer to try and find ways to help this person get better as quickly as possible,” he explains.
“There can be sensitivities [around mental health] but [group risk services] are independent, it is all confidential and there are medical professionals available that could help. This is an area for being proactive, and not for just hoping that [the issue] will go away, because it doesn’t.”
There are a number of services offered alongside group risk products that can assist employees coping with mental health and wellbeing issues, such as helplines and counselling support. As John Matthews, partner at Mercer Marsh Benefits, explains, the independent and confidential nature of these services is of particular value to employees.
“There is a raft of add-ons that come with the [group risk] products that we put in place collectively,” he says. ”They are often overlooked but they are very supportive and helpful, and often even more so because they come from outside of the organisation itself; it is an independent source that is providing this assistance.”
NHBC’s Attley adds: “Independence is really important for that sort of thing in order to build trust and transparency around the process.”
A supportive strategy
In addition to an increased focus on mental wellbeing in the workplace, there is a greater level of awareness and training around resilience, says Matthews. However, the term ‘resilience’ proves to be an area of contention among those participating in the roundtable discussion, which took place in September 2015. For Attley, the term is an example of the care that must be taken around the language used when discussing mental health. He explains: “We would rather focus on creating a set of conditions that work with people rather than [those] we need to make people resilient to.”
While Gaynor concurs that it is important to get the language right around what is still an emotive topic, he takes an alternative view on resilience. “In my mind, resilience is more about enabling and preparing people to deal with their appropriate level [of pressure] rather than letting things get on top of them, and this might be achieved through training, lifestyle factors or it could be through line managers,” he explains. “Resilience is different for everybody, and then it is also different for everybody in every different scenario; some people might be more resilient in one role than another role or in one organisation than another organisation.”
There are a number of avenues that employers can explore when developing a system to support the wellness of their staff, including around mental health and resilience. According to MetLife’s Gaynor, this could include assistance from providers, both group risk providers and otherwise, inviting mental health charities into the workplace to talk to employees, or training staff so that they can serve as mental health first aiders.
He adds that, while mental health first-aider initiatives have only been implemented in a handful of organisations thus far, interest in them is growing and the impact that they have can be significant: “Just knowing that there is a mental health first aider intuitively makes sense to everyone and it debunks the view of mental health [as a taboo topic].”
Enlisting senior management and line managers into strategies to support mental wellbeing can also help to establish a culture that encourages an open dialogue around mental health. As Lee Gruskin, principal consultant at Capita Employee Benefits, states, managers also play a part in establishing the working environment, which can influence employees’ wellbeing. “It is very important to get the line management aspect right,” he says. “It is not just around understanding stress or seeing the signs of onset of stress, anxiety and depression, but actually having the structure of the workplace right to allow people to flourish in their jobs.”
A preventative approach
While the spotlight on mental wellbeing is gradually strengthening, it makes up just one of many aspects of wellbeing that employers can promote to support the various and often complex requirements of an increasingly diverse workforce demographic.
“Employers are starting to sit up and take notice that you really do need to manage the whole person, providing support, not just in terms of the financial and physical side of things, but in terms of structure through to career development,” says NHBC’s Attley. “We all spend plenty of time at work and employers are starting to realise that needs to be a positive experience to help with retention, recruitment and performance management.”
The shift in emphasis to wellness has been accompanied by a greater focus on the preventative measures that employers can offer staff in order to ensure they remain healthy, happy and productive at work. In the group risk arena, providers have widened the portfolio of preventative services available through group risk benefits for employees. Katharine Moxham, spokesperson for industry body Group Risk Development (Grid), says: “We are now moving into the realms of prevention with some newer additions to the extra services that are provided.”
For MetLife’s Gaynor, prevention should mark the first stage in the relationship between insurers and employers. “The insurance contract that pays out is the last safety net. There are a whole load of things that should be done beforehand to prevent or shorten absence,” he says.
There are a number of ways in which group risk providers and advisers can help employers to develop a preventative approach that suits the requirements of their workforce. Gaynor encourages employers to ask about the measures that they would like to see implemented: “I would say to employers to ask more of advisers and insurers. Ask the question and the likelihood is that there will be something available.”
Joining the dots
These additional services can form an integral part of the support network offered by an employee benefits programme, ensuring that staff have access to assistance to help them stay fit and healthy, through to rehabilitation or claims support should they suffer from long-term sickness. According to Mercer Marsh Benefits’ Matthews, it is important to join up the dots between benefits. “This could involve making sure that an employee assistance programme [EAP] is in place and that it works to offer counselling where appropriate for mental health issues, or ensuring that there is easy and quick access to physiotherapy for musculoskeletal problems, as well as all of the other pieces that might be appropriate as an employer goes through the journey of trying to make sure that their workforce is fit,” he says.
Making sure that each additional service and benefit works together throughout this journey can also help employers support staff that go on long-term sickness absence for a physical health issue who then suffer from mental health issues. Effective communication has a key role to play in this scenario, says Attley. “Having communication and dialogue with the individuals concerned is vitally important as part of that [support] piece.”
For Matthews, communication between both the employer and employee, and the group risk provider and employee, is key. “The employer and the insurer working together to try and help that employee through their illness and back to work is such an important part of the whole process; it can’t just be seen to be that the insurer has responsibility for this and it is over to them because then that employee is going to feel disengaged and probably be off work longer than they would otherwise be.”
Visibly putting employee wellbeing on the agenda so that staff are aware that their employer is taking steps to support them, such as through group risk provision or other wellbeing initiatives, can help employees to feel valued, boosting engagement, loyalty and productivity. Three years ago, for example, NHBC’s health and safety committee gave a health, safety and wellbeing committee a change of emphasis that has helped the organisation make strides with its wellbeing agenda. “This gave us the opportunity to report straight up to the board and sent a strong underlying message to staff that wellbeing is just as important as the statutory requirements of health and safety,” explains Attley.