Health and wellbeing: Mentally prepared

If you read nothing else, read this . . .

• The government’s welfare reforms strengthen the case for employers to offer robust provisions to address employee mental health.
• Mental health champions can be used to create an open culture and encourage staff with problems to come forward.
• The government’s Access to Work programme provides advice and support for staff whose health or disability affects the way they do their job, and their employer.


Case study: Deloitte partners are mental health champions

Accountancy firm Deloitte made nine of its senior partners mental health champions as part of efforts to increase openness about mental health among staff.

Employees experiencing mental health problems can talk confidentially outside of internal line management structures to trained mental health champions, who can provide reassurance and support while pointing them in the direction of existing services and benefits. Employees concerned about a member of their team can also obtain support.

John Binns, a partner at Deloitte, worked with charity Mind to set up the mental health champions network about 18 months ago after he suffered a bout of depression in 2007. “In terms of the individual, it is giving them a message that, actually, they are not the only one,” he says. “They probably think they are at the time, but there are quite a few other people and their career is not over.”

Binns says Deloitte was very supportive over his depression. “I was treated much better than I expected and was given a message I was very valuable to the firm, and what it wanted from me was not to get straight back to being exactly as I was, but it would like me fixed and up and running, however long it was going to take. That reassurance meant I was back being productive much quicker than I otherwise would have been.”

However, Binns felt that more could have been done to create an open culture at the firm. “The return-to-work experience was excellent but would have been better if there had been a culture at Deloitte where people were more prepared and I was prepared to talk about what was happening to me and recognise it before it got to a crisis point,” he says. “It got to a point where I could not come in, fell off the edge and had two months off work.|

Mental health is a growing issue in the workplace and employers must ensure they are equipped to deal with it, says Nicola Sullivan

As the government pushes ahead with welfare reforms that are reassessing people’s eligibility for incapacity benefits and determining their ability to work, employers will increasingly be integrating staff with long-term mental health conditions into the workplace. This means occupational health strategies must not only be equipped to deal with anxiety and depression, which may already be evident in the workplace, but also less common conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

According to the charity Mind, which is running a campaign focused on mental health at work, employers should aim to create a mentally healthy and open workplace where staff feel supported to discuss any problems.

Emma Mamo, policy and campaign manager at Mind, says: “We do all have [levels of] mental health. If employers are taking positive action, then that will support people who are having problems. It could be people coming from incapacity benefits who have experienced mental health problems, or it could be an existing staff member. To do this well, employers need a very comprehensive strategy that promotes wellbeing for all, looks at work-life balance, good relationships at work and workplace culture.”

For example, remote or flexible working arrangements could be an effective way of helping an employee cope. Anne Payne, executive director at Validium, says: “If somebody is suffering from depression, it may be that they really struggle first thing in the morning. It may be more appropriate for an employer to say it will be a little more flexible with the employee’s start times so that when they do arrive in the workplace, they are able to stay and concentrate.

“The [employee] will need to keep medical appointments. They will not get those medical appointments outside working hours. If employers go into it with a flexible approach, then they are showing loyalty and commitment to the individual and this will support a better and stronger relationship between the employee and the employer.”

Wellness recovery plans

Mamo also advises employers to operate wellness recovery plans for staff living with mental health problems. Such arrangements are designed to help managers spot signs of mental distress, as well as understand what triggers it. Managers are instructed how to behave and who to contact if the employee experiences problems.

“Focus on the person, not the problem,” says Mamo. “Talk to the employee they are probably an expert on what would help them in the workplace. It is not rocket science, it is just good people management.”

Managers have an important role to play in integrating an employee who has been off for a long period back into the workplace and directing them towards existing benefits that can offer support, such as private medical insurance, an employee assistance programme (EAP) or an onsite GP service.

Wolfgang Seidl, Mercer’s head of health management consulting, Europe, Middle East and Africa, says: “Managers need to be equipped with very good referral pathways, so once they have started talking to an employee, they know where to stop. They should not be counsellors, they should just show the caring face of the organisation, and as soon as they get to the bottom of it, they should refer on. They should not be intrusive: they are not mental health professionals.”

Health risk assessment

Mark Marriott, director of UK business development at UK Preventative Medicine, says employers can get a better understanding of their employees’ mental health needs and triggers by conducting a health risk assessment. Such assessments, which can be conducted online, ask staff questions about their family life, medical history and relationships. This not only enables organisations to find out which employees are affected by specific conditions, but also whether they are at risk of having mental health problems.

“In asking those questions, we get a very good idea as to where that individual sits and where they sit in relation to the key risk areas for their health and wellbeing,” says Marriott. “That can be something as simple as a bad back or a history of high blood pressure or specifically mentally related problems such as depression and stress.”
After they have been assessed, staff are pointed in the direction of workplace benefits, NHS services and perhaps coaches, which support them through their illness.

Mercer’s Seidl says mental health problems are best dealt with using a multidisciplinary approach. “We find, from research and my own experience, that independent case management services are better if they are run by clinicians and offer a mixed model of clinical intervention and employment-focused, work-based knowledge.”

Seidl says Dame Carol Black’s fit note system, whereby GPs assess employees on what work they can do, has sometimes led to a clash of approaches. “Operating as a health professional in a vacuum is an issue and the fit note system has thrown that up,” he says. “Some GPs were struggling to understand what is a meaningful, reasonable adjustment to a workplace. What seems logical to a doctor may not be logical to an employer.”

Employers could also tap into the government’s Access to Work programme, which provides advice and financial support for an employee whose health or disability affects the way they do their job, and their employer. It can provide job coaches, personal mentors, advocates to help with negotiating and problem-solving skills, counsellors and support workers. For example, a travel buddy could accompany an employee to and from work if they cannot cope travelling alone.

Workplace benefits that can provide support include EAPs, occupational health services and health screening.
Undoubtedly, employers that tackle the issue of mental health effectively can expect to be rewarded by improved productivity and lower sickness absence rates.


Supporting staff during their return to work

• After being informed about their organisation’s return-to-work process, employees may be asked to sign a consent form that allows relevant medical reports to be seen by the employer.

• A copy of an assessment can be released to the employer along with ongoing reports. This will help the organisation better support the employee and make it aware of any adjustments to the workplace that may need to be made to help the absent employee return.

• Employees can then be assessed by a psychologist, which will explore barriers to a return to work and determine the level of psychological intervention required.

• This encourages HR, occupational health or line managers, to refer employees with psychological difficulties that are preventing a return to the workplace, are creating a poor attendance pattern, or are resulting in ineffectiveness at work. Sometimes absences are relatively short, but in some cases they can stretch to many months or even years.

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