Why a mental health strategy must be more than just ticking the EAP box

By Simon Crew

I still have a very clear image in my head of the day in June 2007 that my best friend’s wife called to tell me that her husband had been found dead by their next door neighbour. Only 6 months before I had been stood in front of family and friends delivering a best man’s speech and now I was acting as one of his pall bearers.

It was the single most shocking incident to have occurred in my life and, whilst I was not fully appreciative of it at the time, had a huge impact on my mental health.

It took four months for me to really understand how his death had affected me. My work had started to suffer and close friends had become increasingly worried about me before I finally realised that I needed help.

A combination of a supportive line manager, use of the company employee assistance programme (EAP) and some counselling helped me come to terms with the situation and ultimately I became far more mentally resilient and emotionally aware.

While my situation was far from unique, it was the first time I admitted to anyone other than family and close friends that I was unable to manage on my own and needed help to mentally process the loss of my best friend.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the stigma attached to mental health still prevents many people from admitting when they need help.  Whilst the events being held this week are designed to reduce that stigma by building strong relationships, the role of education, awareness and resilience are vital to help manage mental health in the workplace.

The financial impact of mental illness in the workplace is well known, but I don’t believe that a business should formulate a strategy based purely around cost. Businesses that are incurring higher than average costs as a result of mental illness are doing so because of a failed strategy.

Long gone are the days where having an EAP is sufficient for an employer to demonstrate a duty of care for an employee’s mental wellbeing.  A clearly structured and well implemented mental health strategy can help ensure that employees remain healthy and productive; however the overall success will be dependent upon the inputs that underpin the strategy:

  • Clarify objectives – short, medium and long term objectives
  • Physical environment – need to understand and assess the impact of environment and future business activities
  • Understanding unique cultural challenges – every employee is different and greater understanding of employee demographic will help shape direction of strategy
  • Create project team – vital to secure senior management buy in and involvement from key individuals across the business
  • Evaluation of current resources – many businesses already engage with an array of benefit providers and many of these will have available resources, some at no cost, to help facilitate the strategy
  • Establish ongoing evaluation process – use of management information to help define and refine strategy objectives and project success
  • Communication – key to ensuring that everyone understands the reasons why and benefits of implementing the strategy – employees will understandably be far less likely to engage in an employer sponsored scheme if they believe it is driven purely by the need for increased productivity and profit.

Key to the ongoing success of an employee mental health wellbeing strategy is helping to build emotional resilience amongst the workforce.  As much as an employer can help educate and build a framework of early intervention, there is an emphasis on the employee to take ownership of their own mental wellbeing. Developing emotional resilience can help employees adapt and ‘bounce back’ when faced with difficult situations in their life.

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It is important to ensure that resilience training and support forms a core part of any mental health strategy and that building emotional resilience encompasses all aspects of an employee’s wellbeing.

I believe that a multi-faceted wellbeing strategy that includes a detailed focus on mental health is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’. The key is how an employer chooses to approach such a strategy and whether they are prepared to invest the time at the planning stage to ensure the best chance of long term success.