HR & Management

Mind control: Only a third of staff with a mental health problem feel they have support

11 min read

03 October 2017

Research by Unum and the Mental Health Foundation unveiled that by 2015 some 8.6m people aged 16 or older were prone to experiencing a common mental health problem. This, the two explained, included stress, depression and/or anxiety.

The survey, commissioned by YouGov, combined the responses of 1,000 Brits who admitted to having a mental health problem with 1,000 line managers – and found “distress” to be a mutual factor.

Some 88 per cent of those with a mental health problem – and 39 per cent of managers with no alleged history of mental health issues – told researchers: “I have been through times where I felt stressed, overwhelmed or had trouble coping, for whatever reason.” 

According to Unum: “This is a strong indicator of presenteeism and highlights the need to act holistically. Furthermore, it is of huge concern that 49 per cent of the respondents who had been diagnosed with a mental health problem in the last five years reported going to work while experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings.”

Talking with Liz Walker, HR director at Unum, we found out more about the research – and how Unum ensured the wellbeing of its own team.

What do you believe are the benefits of investing in employees’ health and wellbeing?

Supporting employees’ health and wellbeing can bring tremendous return on investment. When employers prioritise their employees’ health and wellbeing, employees are likely to feel more engaged and work more productively. This, in turn, can help employers operate more efficiently and improve staff recruitment and retention.

There are also potential cost savings through reductions in employee absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover and health-related costs.

In what ways do you boost employee wellbeing?

Actively working to safeguard employee mental health is a critical element of our overall health and wellbeing. We’ve implemented several initiatives that provide support so that it becomes rooted in our company culture.

Our work environment has been redesigned to stimulate face-to-face collaboration, inspiring employees to move around during the work day and take breaks. We ensure plenty of healthy options are accessible and affordable in the restaurant, like offering free fruit with employee lunches.

We train line managers to spot a mental health problem, and ensure they have the means to provide support. A health and wellbeing committee comprised of staff volunteers has also been assembled. These volunteers act as champions to generate awareness and develop initiatives that support the overall cause.

Our next big focus area is resilience, understanding it as a means for employees to realise their full potential and safeguard their mental health and wellbeing.

If money was no object, what health and wellbeing perks/schemes would you suggest employers put in place?

A dedicated health and life coach for each employee to help manage important elements of their overall wellbeing, including stress management, sleep-cycle improvement, mindfulness, and healthy eating choices, would be the way to go.

But, quite frankly, there are several initiatives that can be implemented without significant cost. Creating a culture of support and openness, where employees can share struggles and ask for help, can have a strong impact on a company. As does education and effective communication about what resources are available to employees, like Employee Assistance Programmes or prevention and early intervention services.

How would you advise smaller businesses tackle staff mental health?

My best advice for SMEs is to view mental health as an asset. Supporting mental health in the workplace is more than just the right thing do – it makes good business sense. Practical tips include:

• Being aware of existing resources, like the added value services typically available with Group Income Protection. Employers may have access to rehab consultants and vocational experts who can help employers manage mental health. Also, employers should use Employee Assistance Programmes that provide practical and emotional support to help safeguard mental health.

• Designate champions at board level and within senior management to oversee the development and implementation of a mental health strategy, so that it exists at the heart of the business. These champions should facilitate dialogue and create a culture of openness around the topic to remove the stigma.

• Address mental health support and protection in company policies to showcase commitment and address discrimination. You need to value the diversity and transferable skills people with experience of mental health problems bring to a company. A variety of perspectives is always beneficial for a business and provides a competitive edge.

Do you believe that mental health is still a taboo subject?

Having a mental health problem has historically been viewed as taboo, but as employers, we must work to encourage conversation. I’m happy to see mental health moving up on the agenda as more people start to understand how common it is and the need for support.

Is it often the case that people don’t realise the state of their own mental health?

Yes, in fact, distress is an issue that affects a major proportion of the workforce, whether people have experienced a mental health problem or not. Distress often leaves people feeling less productive and working while unwell.

Walker offers advice on addressing the subject on the next page

What do you think can be done to improve understanding of mental ill-health?

Education, resources and training on the topic, including how to spot a mental health problem, can help improve awareness and understanding. SMEs are likely to have access to these resources through a GIP provider. A culture of openness and support will also bring the issue into the open and encourage employees to seek help when needed.

What is the most common misconception?

The most common misconception is that mental health only affects a small population, when in fact, in certain circumstances, anyone is at risk of mental ill-health, including stress, distress, anxiety or depression.

Are there any other issues around mental health that Unum’s research uncovered?

Our research, in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation, found only a third of UK workers who have experienced a mental health problem feel supported by their manager, and that only half of line managers feel confident they could recognise signs that a member of their team was having problems coping. This shows how much room there is for improvement.

Another interesting find was that employees with mental health conditions contribute far more to the overall economy compared to the costs – a fact that surprises many people.

What you think is the biggest element around mental health employers tend to forget?

Employers tend to forget that work is an important factor in supporting and protecting mental health – all the more reason employers should make mental health and wellbeing a priority. The survey also showed 86 per cent of respondents with mental health conditions said their job and being at work was important in safeguarding their mental health and “keeps them well.”

How do you unwind after a tough week?

The key for me is to find a balance between social activity and “me time”. I am an extrovert so I get my energy from being around others, yet the reality of a busy life at work and home means I also need time to reflect, get organised and wind down as well as gear up for the next week. I like to do something social, usually with another family or friends on a Friday night but Saturday morning is sacred and I tend not to deviate.

I spend the morning at home after a workout, getting organised for the week and usually baking or doing some kind of project with my daughter usually still in her pyjamas by noon on a Saturday as a treat after her own long week. The rest of the weekend will be a mixture of dog walks, meeting up with friends and cooking food for the week ahead! When I really need to switch off, I pack up the family and the dog and go on a road trip to see somewhere new.

Do you have any rituals to improve your own mental health?

I practice mindfulness and have some breathing techniques to get back in balance when I am feeling stressed. I try to stay active, and go to bed early and wake up early as morning is my most productive and energetic time. I maximise those hours to stay ahead of the day – I get stressed when my day feels out of control, and the more I can do before getting to the office when I will inevitably “lose control” with things coming up unexpectedly, the better I can manage the stress.

HR is one of the hot topics discussed at the FD Surgery Manchester in November. Find out more here.