Supporting employees through mental health issues Supporting employees through mental health issues

Supporting employees through mental health issues
01 Oct 2017

Depression is the second biggest cause of disability worldwide behind lower back pain. It is also a major contributor to suicide and heart disease.

A report published by the World Health Organization in 2011 projected that, by 2030, mental health problems, and depression in particular, would be the leading cause of mortality and morbidity across the world.

The pressures imposed by an increasingly demanding work culture are perhaps the most significant challenge to the mental health of the general population. As most people spend the majority of their time at work, the extent to which a job can affect personal wellbeing is impossible to understate.

A survey by the Japanese government that was released in October 2016 revealed that 21.3% of the country’s employees work on average 50 hours or more each week. This proportion is well above the US’ 16.4%, the UK’s 12.5% and France’s 10.4%, where the average working week is between 35 and 40 hours. But suicide is now the single biggest cause of death among Japanese men aged between 20 and 44 and the survey found that a fifth of the workforce was at risk of ‘karoshi’ or death from overwork.

Of the Japanese companies polled, just under a quarter said that some of their staff regularly logged more than 80 hours of overtime each month, while 12% worked a shocking 100 hours a month. Earlier this year, the Japanese government proposed limiting the average amount of permissible overtime to 60 hours per month, a move that critics attest continues to prioritise business and economic interests over the welfare of workers.

By way of contrast, Sweden has just completed a two-year trial among 70 nurses, who saw their working hours cut from eight to six hours a day for the same pay. Results showed that staff felt happier and healthier, leading to reduced sick leave and absenteeism – although in the end, the decision was taken not to roll the scheme out more widely because it was deemed too expensive.

Building a support culture

However, widespread research shows that one in every four adults will experience mental health issues during any given year, costing employers a reported £2.4bn per year in the UK alone to replace them. Therefore, it would appear to make sense to help employees combat mental illness and build a culture of acceptance and support around it.

Indeed, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with employee benefits provider Unum found that 86% of people with mental health conditions believe both their job and being at work are actually important in protecting and maintaining their mental health due to the positive influence such a situation has on their recovery, wellbeing, self-esteem, social connectedness and identity.

Even when those questioned identified work-related stress as being directly linked to their mental health challenge, they still saw employment as a necessary part of their lives as it provided an income, stability and routine. Sickness absence and leaving work altogether were shown to be a last resort for most of those questioned.

So with this in mind, what can employers do to support workers facing mental health issues and help them to remain productive?

 Firstly, it is important to put the necessary structures in place to make it easy for employees to find the help they require. Make it clear that they can go to HR or their line manager in order to request flexible working, arrange counselling or just have someone to talk to.

Techniques to help

However, because mental health is a very personal subject, some people find it easier to talk to an independent medical professional rather than their boss. As a result, employee assistance programmes can prove useful here by providing employees with access to 24/7 telephone support, counselling services, psychological assessments and return-to-work services.

Secondly, it makes sense for managers to go on mental health first aid training courses so they know what warning signs to look out for and are able to learn techniques for broaching the subject of mental health without causing offence. These kinds of courses also often help improve managers’ listening skills and knowledge of what options are available to help support someone who is struggling.

It is essential to be aware of the signs of mental ill health problems early on so that support can be provided before someone’s condition deteriorates to the point where they need to go off on long-term sick leave. Therefore, line managers, occupational health professionals and GPs should all ideally work together to ensure that an individual’s needs are catered to.

Here are four simple steps that managers can take to help ensure their employees maintain a good work/life balance:

  • Set defined working hours and ensure employee workloads are manageable within these time constraints;
  • Encourage a culture of openness. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great;
  • Ensure managers are trained to recognise signs of stress and a poor work/life balance among their staff as well as the impact that such a situation can have;
  • Introduce policies that acknowledge the links between work-related stress and mental health. Regularly monitor and evaluate these policies against performance indicators such as sickness or staff satisfaction and put preventative measures in place to guard against them.

Pam Rogerson FCIPD is HR director for the ELAS Group and has 26 years of experience in both employment law and HR. As a fully qualified mediator, she negotiates settlements and exit strategies for clients based on both a commercial and legal best practice approach.

Depression is the second biggest cause of disability worldwide behind lower back pain. It is also a major contributor to suicide and heart disease.

A report published by the World Health Organization in 2011 projected that, by 2030, mental health problems, and depression in particular, would be the leading cause of mortality and morbidity across the world.

The pressures imposed by an increasingly demanding work culture are perhaps the most significant challenge to the mental health of the general population. As most people spend the majority of their time at work, the extent to which a job can affect personal wellbeing is impossible to understate.

A survey by the Japanese government that was released in October 2016 revealed that 21.3% of the country’s employees work on average 50 hours or more each week. This proportion is well above the US’ 16.4%, the UK’s 12.5% and France’s 10.4%, where the average working week is between 35 and 40 hours. But suicide is now the single biggest cause of death among Japanese men aged between 20 and 44 and the survey found that a fifth of the workforce was at risk of ‘karoshi’ or death from overwork.

Of the Japanese companies polled, just under a quarter said that some of their staff regularly logged more than 80 hours of overtime each month, while 12% worked a shocking 100 hours a month. Earlier this year, the Japanese government proposed limiting the average amount of permissible overtime to 60 hours per month, a move that critics attest continues to prioritise business and economic interests over the welfare of workers.

By way of contrast, Sweden has just completed a two-year trial among 70 nurses, who saw their working hours cut from eight to six hours a day for the same pay. Results showed that staff felt happier and healthier, leading to reduced sick leave and absenteeism – although in the end, the decision was taken not to roll the scheme out more widely because it was deemed too expensive.

Building a support culture

However, widespread research shows that one in every four adults will experience mental health issues during any given year, costing employers a reported £2.4bn per year in the UK alone to replace them. Therefore, it would appear to make sense to help employees combat mental illness and build a culture of acceptance and support around it.

Indeed, a survey by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with employee benefits provider Unum found that 86% of people with mental health conditions believe both their job and being at work are actually important in protecting and maintaining their mental health due to the positive influence such a situation has on their recovery, wellbeing, self-esteem, social connectedness and identity.

Even when those questioned identified work-related stress as being directly linked to their mental health challenge, they still saw employment as a necessary part of their lives as it provided an income, stability and routine. Sickness absence and leaving work altogether were shown to be a last resort for most of those questioned.

So with this in mind, what can employers do to support workers facing mental health issues and help them to remain productive?

 Firstly, it is important to put the necessary structures in place to make it easy for employees to find the help they require. Make it clear that they can go to HR or their line manager in order to request flexible working, arrange counselling or just have someone to talk to.

Techniques to help

However, because mental health is a very personal subject, some people find it easier to talk to an independent medical professional rather than their boss. As a result, employee assistance programmes can prove useful here by providing employees with access to 24/7 telephone support, counselling services, psychological assessments and return-to-work services.

Secondly, it makes sense for managers to go on mental health first aid training courses so they know what warning signs to look out for and are able to learn techniques for broaching the subject of mental health without causing offence. These kinds of courses also often help improve managers’ listening skills and knowledge of what options are available to help support someone who is struggling.

It is essential to be aware of the signs of mental ill health problems early on so that support can be provided before someone’s condition deteriorates to the point where they need to go off on long-term sick leave. Therefore, line managers, occupational health professionals and GPs should all ideally work together to ensure that an individual’s needs are catered to.

Here are four simple steps that managers can take to help ensure their employees maintain a good work/life balance:

  • Set defined working hours and ensure employee workloads are manageable within these time constraints;
  • Encourage a culture of openness. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great;
  • Ensure managers are trained to recognise signs of stress and a poor work/life balance among their staff as well as the impact that such a situation can have;
  • Introduce policies that acknowledge the links between work-related stress and mental health. Regularly monitor and evaluate these policies against performance indicators such as sickness or staff satisfaction and put preventative measures in place to guard against them.

Pam Rogerson FCIPD is HR director for the ELAS Group and has 26 years of experience in both employment law and HR. As a fully qualified mediator, she negotiates settlements and exit strategies for clients based on both a commercial and legal best practice approach.