Badly handled employee mental wellbeing carries a cost for individuals, their families and businesses. Helen Swire looks at how employers can support their staff

employee wellness

Prime minister Theresa May, in a speech earlier this year, described mental health as “a hidden injustice in our country, shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma and dangerously disregarded as a secondary issue to physical health”.

As a result, she pledged to review mental health practices in the workplace and launch a new £67m digital platform for diagnosis and therapy – a move reiterated by Her Majesty during June’s state opening of Parliament.

While UK employers have been working hard in the past few years to support wellness at work, mental health issues are still costing the UK economy £15bn per year in lost productivity.

Part of the issue are the many factors that can contribute to poor mental wellbeing: from poor management in work, to family-related stress, to financial strains.

“A lot of employers are now looking at employee resilience, motivation and engagement and seeing those as drivers of the overall wellness of the individual, rather than just looking at absence,” says Ally Antell, head of client management and propositions at Aviva.

“People are trying to put the right kinds of intervention in place that reflect the make-up of their workforce: mental health exists in all industries and all walks of life, and it’s about trying to understand the root cause drivers to be able to treat it.”

Without understanding those drivers and reacting appropriately, employers stand to lose out: whether it is in issues of absenteeism, presenteeism, retention or talent acquisition.

“Employees will often find that they spend time during office hours feeling family stress, and so might not be working quite as effectively,” warns James Fisher, head of sales at Embryocare. “If an employer provides the right benefit that can help a staff member practically or emotionally, then this can help to alleviate this stress, and ultimately allow them to return to a normal working pattern.”

Bringing home into work

Mental ill health can go far beyond the impression – perhaps fostered on television – of being too depressed to get out of bed: there are any number of factors in everyday home life that can contribute to or exacerbate the symptoms of stress and depression.

Christine Husbands, managing director at RedArc, points out: “Physical health – whether it’s yourself or your family unit – can affect your mental health, while personal pressures can include relationship difficulties, home problems, or experiencing accidents or trauma. Social media is also a large cause of social pressure and expectations about how you should be, look and behave.”

Many employers now find that their employees’ care responsibilities, either for children or elderly dependents, has a significant impact on their mental health, as well as their ability to be fully present or productive at work.

“Few employers excel in looking after their staff through the full life cycle – that is to say from starting a family, to looking after elderly relatives, through to retirement,” says Fisher.

“The most meaningful employee benefits package is one that provides support and infrastructure to individuals and their families, by taking into consideration their health and future.”

Embryocare’s research around parental leave shows that 75% of employees do not feel fully supported, and over half of employees believe that taking parental leave will have a detrimental affect on their career.

Given that Embryocare deals with parents whose newborn children are seriously ill, it is no wonder that the company is well aware of the severe impact that personal (and often financial) stress can have on working parents.

Of course, whether you’re talking about the stresses of a suffering child, an ill parent, or simply the needs of balancing work and home priorities without affecting your career, these ‘home pressures’ are sensitive topics for employers to broach.

Husbands explains: “Employees are generally quite guarded about sharing an issue with an employer in case it’s perceived as a sign of weakness, or that they’re struggling.

“It’s important that good support services are in place that are properly signposted, so that employees can be easily introduced to them, and can access those services themselves.”

Beyond flexible working and maternity/ paternity transition coaching, there are an increasing number of varied services available, from the traditional employee assistance programme offerings, to stress counselling, to advice on eldercare support and critical illness cover for children.

Many of these are focused on preventing stressful situations, or at least on alleviating the mental stress.

But, Husbands adds, there should also be a culture of recognition and conversation: “Employers should be looking at the signs of people who are not themselves, struggling to concentrate, or taking days off regularly – and if they have a range of support services, ideally they will also have a good open culture of conversation.”

Trying not to break the bank

Often a large part of family or home stress is tied closely to an arguably more taboo subject: stretched finances.

With the advent of pensions freedom and choice, employees have been encouraged to a greater degree than ever to share their aspirations for retirement with pension advisers to ensure they are saving enough for the future.

Beyond this, the idea of discussing your personal finances with your employer is often considered socially inappropriate, while ‘debt’ is invariably heard with a negative connotation.

Very few employees in the UK are completely debt-free, whether they have student debt or a mortgage, while the financial pressures of even such basic care as nurseries are mounting. At the other end of the care spectrum, the Money Advice Service puts the average cost of a residential care home at £29,270 per year.

Research from the Money & Mental Health Institute and SalaryFinance has shown that people with money worries in some shape or form consistently find that those concerns don’t stop at the office door.

“When people have issues with money – from an emergency to being in a debt cycle – it can lead to serious stress, which has consequences for your work, and that of the people around you,” says Asesh Sarkar, SalaryFinance’s chief executive.

“Two years ago, the term financial wellbeing didn’t exist, but now we’re seeing more and more employers doing a range of things to help, and the market responding with appropriate products.”

Different demographics are facing different challenges: from graduates, with student debt and no credit score, struggling to secure their rental deposit and those on the National Minimum Wage trying to make ends meet, to the squeezed middle with numerous different financial burdens to juggle and those seeking to retire at an agreeable age on a decent income.

Getting help to the whole spectrum is an employer’s key challenge, whether it is about putting education in place or implementing a new workplace savings vehicle.

Jonathan Watts-Lay, director at WEALTH at work, advises: “Employers need to think about their methodology: very few people with financial problems go to the company intranet looking to solve their problems. The solution needs to be proactive and ongoing: an education programme that will not only cover money management, but also pensions and retirement, so it becomes an embedded programme that employees are aware of.”

A consistent and proactive offering for all – regardless of position in the workplace lifecycle – opens a difficult conversation without the employee being forced to ask for help or alternatively becoming less engaged and productive at work: in other words, a preventative approach to stress levels tied to financial burdens.

“We need to see more formal financial  education programmes being run in the workplace,” agrees Darren Laverty, partner at Secondsight.

“At the end of the day, financial wellbeing truly underpins both physical and psychological wellness.”

Problems closer to home

But stress and mental health issues are not simply brought into the office by people suffering in their personal, family or financial lives.

The average employee will be in the office for 40 hours a week – nearly half of their waking hours.

If you put in this time for the majority of your adult working life, which could now be from 18 until 68 (a steadily rising figure as working lives last longer), it’s highly likely that some of the issues that are causing mental ill health actually originate in the office.

Pressures at work could range from the disciplinary, such as bullying or harassment, to the necessities of office life, such as organisational change or performance management.

The Health and Safety Executive defines certain factors as contributors to workplace stress, many of which overlap and affect each other:

  • Demand: how much is required of us, how much time is given to us and expected of us, what our work patterns are, our work environment and the flexibility we’re given.
  • Control: how much of a say we have in the work we do, being micro-managed or receiving little to no constructive management.
  • Support: the encouragement that is given to us by colleagues, the chief executive or line managers.
  • Relationships: closely interlinked with support, the promotion of confidence to deal with conflict or unacceptable behaviour, and the kind of relationships we maintain with those we work with.
  • Role: how we understand our working world on a day-to-day basis, how that individually contributes to the organisation, and how roles fit together overall in the workplace.
  • Change: how organisational change is managed and communicated.

Whether minor or dramatic, elements of, or changes to, each of these factors can seriously affect an employee’s mental wellbeing – particularly in the area of organisational change.

Indeed, for employees at the insurer Zurich, wellbeing has been formalised into four pillars, which include organisational development as an equal factor, alongside mental health, nutrition and lifestyle, and physical health.

But, says Hayley Golden, UK diversity, inclusion and wellbeing manager at Zurich, all pillars interact so closely that it is key for employees to be able to define what it means to them in an open conversation.

“It’s all very interchangeable: change is key because it can remove the control an individual has over a situation, and can then have an affect on relationships, support, demand and role,” says Golden. “The organisational side of mental health is still new to employers and they want to do the right thing, but can be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.”

Getting it right practically

Many industry leaders are positive that employers are taking the right steps to address workplace mental wellbeing – but perhaps because of this fear of saying the wrong thing, many also feel that there is still a long way to go.

Aviva’s Antell says that the cultural picture still needs to make strides, with unconscious gender and rank bias a continuing issue. Male employees are often more uncomfortable talking about their mental health than their female peers, while senior staff struggle with the perception of ‘showing weakness’.

Antell points out that technology can play an important role in putting a strong programme in place that will reach out to a broader employee base – but that this is far from the definitive response.

“Technology allows you to communicate to people really quickly and consistently, on employees’ own terms and in their own time – but it is not the silver bullet,” he says. “A really strong programme also backs this up with the different ways in which different people can get the levels of support they need.”

Dealing with monetary stress, for example, may require a consistent programme that works through stages of financial education in seminars before switching to an online saving tool. However, an employee suffering from depression might benefit from an anonymous telephone counselling service or external care from an EAP.

Antell adds: “With mental health, it’s important to give people options: a good employer programme will give staff choices to engage how they feel comfortable.

“Within Aviva, for example, some really brave employees have made a video talking about their own mental health experiences, and we’ve had more positive employee interaction with that than with any other internal communication we’ve done in this field. It’s really open and honest and has made people feel comfortable to talk about these issues.”

A sign of things to come

It’s all a positive sign of the movement towards the cultural change around mental well-being and a programme of prevention rather than cure – particularly as braver employers start to get creative with the ways they can challenge the stigma.

“Companies are now beginning to train line managers on how to spot the early signs of mental health problems,” says Secondsight’s Laverty. “It’s this form of early intervention that will help to support staff, and ultimately save the business money in the long term.”

Changes at a legislative level are also helping: the introduction of new savings products, as well as the debate around social care sparked off by the Conservatives’ manifesto in the June general election, have encouraged employers to consider the stresses of their staff beyond the workplace.

Notably, the young royals are becoming involved in the conversation too – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have increased the breadth of discussion of mental health through their Heads Together campaign.

“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” says RedArc’s Husbands. “Employers are keen to put well-being initiatives in place and they are gradually understanding the difference it can make to people when they are being supported and feel able to address their mental health difficulties.”