How mental health approaches can be targeted to workforce demographics


Need to know:

  • Various factors, such as age, gender and job role, can influence the amount and type of mental wellbeing support needed by employees. Some influences, such as the impact of home working, might be less obvious.
  • Offering a wide variety of support systems can help reach more employees, but will be expensive, so it is important to consider targeted interventions that apply to the needs of a specific workforce.
  • Communications can influence take-up of existing wellbeing benefits, while introducing innovative new initiatives can target employees previously resistant to discussions about mental health.

Every individual has their own unique set of fears, worries and aspirations, so tailoring mental health support to different groups can help an organisation reach out to more employees.

Eugene Farrell, chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals’ Association (EAPA) and mental health lead at Axa PPP healthcare, says: “A generic approach will only touch a small group of employees. An organisation might need a dozen different mechanisms to support the mental health and wellbeing of its workforce.”

Demographic demands

The demographics of a workforce can influence which support mechanisms are most appropriate. Although it is important not to generalise, factors such as age, gender, role and location can all play a part in shaping an employees’ mental health support preferences.

“As well as being digital natives, younger people tend to be more engaged with their mental health,” Farrell explains. “They’ll expect help and support and will be happy to have this delivered through an app or the intranet. An older person might prefer to speak to someone, by phone or face-to-face.”

Gender is another factor that can have a significant bearing on support requirements. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, head of health management consulting, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Mercer Health and Benefits, points to the experiences of a large transport organisation.

Of the 5,000 employees, around a fifth took time off work as they had been exposed to stressful situations, such as aggressive customers and suicides. “As soon as 40% of the [employer’s] drivers were women, absence halved,” he says. “In this instance, women were not only better at dealing with this distress, but they also provided the necessary support to their male colleagues.”

Challenging careers

Some roles also come with specific mental health support requirements. Among those exposed to higher risks of psychological harm are emergency services staff, who experience high levels of pressure and abuse, train drivers, who can witness rail suicides, and social media moderators, who can be exposed to disturbing content.

Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon Employee Benefits, notes that it is not always possible to avoid employees being exposed to hazards: “Employers must put appropriate mechanisms in place to reduce exposure as much as possible and ensure that employees have access to appropriate support.”

As an example, he points to the Blue Light Programme, which was developed by Mind in conjunction with the emergency services. This focuses on several areas, including tackling stigma, building resilience, making support accessible and establishing support networks.

Home discomforts

It is not only those on the front line who can experience high levels of stress. For example, home and remote workers also present mental health challenges.

As well as the risk of loneliness, home working can put pressure on employees to work longer hours. “Organisations must have clear policies, setting out guidance and tips on safeguarding these employees’ mental health and wellbeing,” Alberts says. “This can set the tone and let them know it’s okay to take a break.”

Although it is hard to replace face-to-face interaction, technology such as video calls and instant messenger can help. “Line managers must dedicate enough time to support these employees,” says Alberts. “It’s important they feel they are part of the organisation.”

Tailored help

Whether seeking to address the issues of a particular set of employees or to provide support across a diverse workforce, investing in a broad range of support systems is one way to reach more employees. But, as this approach can be expensive, Seidl advocates starting with a risk assessment to identify specific issues: “Employers need to think about whether there are any groups at higher risk of mental health issues so they can provide appropriate support.”

Employee data can also help create an effectively targeted approach. Management information from an employee assistance programme (EAP), occupational health data and employee engagement surveys can all show if there are any particular issues affecting the organisation. These insights can then be used to target appropriate support and communications.

Variety of support

Whatever is required, it is likely to include a variety of different support mechanisms. Alongside an EAP, with phone, online and face-to-face access, an employer might want to consider offering line manager training to help identify the signs of mental health issues among employees.

Preventative support systems, such as resilience training and mindfulness, can also be important, says Michelle Hobson, HR technology and services director at Moorepay: “Employers should look to be proactive as well as reactive. Rather than simply use an EAP when an employee is struggling, promote the service before they reach this point.”

As an example, Hobson points to an employee relocating for a new role. Rather than leave them to find their feet, an EAP could be used provide information on everything from local schools and doctor’s surgeries to the area’s social groups.

Marketing material

The way in which support is communicated will also help to increase reach. Seidl points to examples such as putting up posters on the back of toilet cubicle doors and sewing the EAP number into employees’ overalls.

It is also worth looking at some of the initiatives being used by charities. A good example of this is Sands United FC, a network of football clubs set up by the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Charity. It recognises that men can struggle to discuss mental health issues, and aims to break down those barriers by bringing bereaved dads together to play football.

Whatever the form it comes in, whether promoting a traditional EAP or launching an innovative wellbeing initiative, employers should consider the benefits of tailoring mental wellbeing interventions to their workforce demographics, as each step moves towards making these supports part of an employee’s everyday experience.

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