Pam Whelan, Simplyhealth’s director of corporate, explains why good mental health is the key to productivity – and what employers can do to support their staff

Why does productivity matter at work, for employers, employees and also for the UK’s economy as a whole?

Having a productive workforce and having your people perform well in work can be a real differentiator for any company. The working landscape is changing fast, with increased automation, off-shoring certain functions and artificial intelligence. As a business, it is increasingly your people who make the difference. If they perform well, your business is likely to perform well also.

An inspired team is a winning team

What do you think are the biggest barriers to increasing productivity and how can employers address them?

We are no longer working nine-to-five, it is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so there are increased demands and pressure on everyone. Really, I think mental health is the biggest issue. We all have mental health. When we use the term mental health it implies that you’re struggling but actually, you can have good mental health as well as bad mental health. As businesses, we should be supporting our people and talking openly, equipping our managers to encourage open dialogue and putting support mechanisms in place for our people to access counselling. For example, a cash plan will typically offer both telephone and access to face-to-face counselling when is that is required.

How do you start to empower managers to make them feel a bit more confident about addressing these issues?

It really starts at the top with the culture that you create. If employees feel safe and supported, they’re more likely to be open. We’ve got a situation in our own office where we have an individual with struggling with their mental health, and the feedback from them is that the support that the line managers have given has been the difference between them being able to manage it better and be present in the office rather than having to take time off. That individual feels supported, listened to and does feel that there is not a stigma attached to it.

How do you foster good mental health in your workforce?

It is important to ensure that people are aware that they work in a culture where they can talk and where, as a business, it is recognised that mental health is as important as physical health. That open environment encourages people to talk to managers and their colleagues.

From our own company’s perspective, we encourage people to perform well whilst in work but equally ensure that when they’re not in work that they are making the most of life and not stressing about work. We encourage a culture of not emailing over the weekends or at silly o’clock in the evening. You come in, you do your work, you perform well and then you have your downtime to enjoy the other aspects of your life that feed your happiness and your health.

We try to encourage not only good mental health but good physical health by providing our employees with our benefits. Cash plan benefits help our people to take more of a preventative approach to their health and wellbeing, encouraging them to not wait until a problem manifests but to be really aware of their own health and wellbeing and take more of a preventative approach. That as a business is the proposition that we offer, so we instil it within our employees.

Mental illness and poor financial health are often interrelated. As an employer, how do you start addressing that complete picture and help employees to tackle their debt issues which, if left unaddressed, could also lead to stress?

It is important to have an employee benefits package that takes into account the whole range of issues that can impact financial wellness. Allowing employees to access financial advice through their benefits package is one way of dealing with it. So hopefully any financial concerns can be addressed through financial advice before they become an issue that starts playing on their mind and then can manifest in the form of bigger problems down the line.

We’ve got probably the biggest range of ages that we’ve ever seen within the workforce, and the issues are very different at different life stages. As employers, it is important to ensure that you understand the demographics of your workforce and have appropriate benefits in place to manage all the challenges that may manifest themselves throughout people’s working lives.

Do you see the stretched sandwich generation, who are often caring for children and older parents, as an issue within your workforce? What kind of solutions can employers put in place?

I don’t think we see it as an issue because we recognise that all those challenges exist for our people, and therefore ensure that the appropriate propositions are there to support them. We have got the Care for Life proposition, where we recognise that a lot of people are carers for elderly relatives or disabled partners or children. It’s a case of ensuring that we’ve got the right support mechanisms in place for them so that they can access practical advice on how to manage certain situations.

We have an open culture where we can talk and allow flexibility to make sure that carers have the ability to drop somebody off at respite care. Equally, when carers are in the office they are able to be more present because they know that they are supported.

There’s a perception that burnout and stress are a bigger problem now than in the past - is that really the case, or have we just become better at recognising, recording and quantifying it?

You could probably ask ten different people that question and get very different responses from each of them. But my personal view is it’s probably a combination of both as well as an ageing workforce, which I think is another dynamic which is adding to it as well. But whatever the reason, the positive news is that we are recognising more and more the problems now and offering appropriate benefits to support, which has got to be good for everybody.

When you say, ‘the right sort of support’, does that mean measures like counsellors in the workplace, or is it more a case of fostering openness among managers, or will it vary from company to company?

If a company is identifying that they have got a big issue with mental health, then they need to look seriously at what support mechanisms they can put in place, whether that is through appropriate products available for their employees that gives them access to counselling, or indeed a counsellor on site, which for certain types of workforces may well be appropriate. Companies should look at the feedback they are receiving from their employees and understand what the challenges are. Are they adding to the challenge by expecting a 24/7 working culture? Is there something that they can do to change working practices as well as providing practical support through offering counselling, for instance?

Do you think employers are taking more responsibility now for mental health than they did in the past, especially as public services are under pressure?

I think employers are taking more responsibility now because they understand the challenges their employees have. Equally, whilst employers can provide the products, services, we really need the employees to take ownership for their own health and wellbeing.

Employers can provide appropriate benefits which encourage a preventative approach. I think where we’ve got challenges with the NHS, challenges with accessing even general GP appointments and dental appointments, we really do need to be empowering people to take more responsibility for their everyday health and helping them perform well, not only in work but also in their home life as well.

If you were a company that was perhaps reading this interview when it’s published thinking, ‘I really need to do something about this,’ what would be the first steps you would advise that they should think about taking?

First of all, how are they recognising there is a problem? Have they already gone out and surveyed their workforce, have they empowered their managers to have those conversations? Is this where they are starting to get the feedback from? Once they understand what the problem is and where the challenges are, then it is talking to the likes of ourselves, Simplyhealth, and understanding what our propositions are and where we can offer practical support through the products that we offer. We can also help employers to communicate with their workforce and help them to identify the culture that they are trying to drive.