Mental Health Awareness Week: Supporting mental health in the workplace has never been more important

Carl Laidler, Director of Wellbeing at Health Shield Friendly Society, discusses why COVID-19 means that wellbeing and mental health in the workplace are more important than ever

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is set to be more important than ever as the UK deals with the continuing ramifications of Covid-19 and the increased economic uncertainty that the disease has produced. With enforced home working, self-isolation and growing concerns of redundancy, employers have a duty to ensure the health and safety of employees extends to mental health conditions triggered or made worse by the pandemic.

While the full impact of Covid-19 on employee mental health is still unknown, experts and mental health charities like Mind have said it is having a negative effect, especially for those with existing mental health conditions. Recent research commissioned by LinkedIn in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation found that 56% of adults felt more anxious and stressed about work than they did before the pandemic. The study also revealed that 58% of HR leaders are concerned that added pressures connected to working from home will result in staff having to take time off due to burnout.

For a country that’s already facing a mental health crisis in the workplace, it’s incumbent on the UK’s employers to put employee mental wellbeing at the top of their priority list. According to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), more than 600,000 UK workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018-2019. These conditions resulted in 12.8 million lost working days and accounted for 44% of all work-related ill-health cases and 54% of all working days lost to ill-health.

More accountable

Last September, in an effort to deal with this growing challenge, the HSE published criteria required for it to investigate claims of work-related stress or stress-related ill-health. Alongside the findings of the 2017 UK Government-commissioned Stevenson-Farmer review into workplace mental health, this new and tougher stance from the regulator shows how employers are being held more accountable for their employees’ mental health.

Further legislation is also coming into force that mandates firms to take a more active role in instilling a culture of organisational wellbeing. From April 2020, as part of the Employment Rights (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019, employers will have to provide all new joiners with a written statement of terms that cover aspects like benefit entitlements and sick pay from their first day at work.

The 2017 Taylor Review revealed that improvements in employee engagement result in increased productivity and there is strong evidence to show that a robust employee wellbeing strategy which incorporates both physical and mental health solutions results in better business performance.

Easier said than done

However, while it’s clear the government wants firms to improve mental wellbeing support, many employers are struggling to do so. This is particularly the case with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may not have the resources to provide mental health interventions. A recent Health Shield survey of SME employers and employees found that more employees (42%) than employers (39%) think it is the employer’s responsibility to provide stress management and resilience support. Additionally, while almost three quarters (73%) of employers believe their promotion of positive mental health support is effective, just over half (57%) of employees agree. This reveals a clear gap in the level of mental health support employers believe they are delivering compared to what employees feel is being provided.

One of the key challenges in dealing with stress is that it affects everyone differently, which can make it hard for employers to know how to help employees when they’re having issues. The HSE provides a set of Management Standards that demonstrate good practice through a step-by-step risk assessment approach. They cover six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates.

Practical solutions

Conducting a stress risk assessment is one of the ways firms can protect workers from mental health issues. However, because the causes of stress vary between individuals, it’s important that stress risk assessments take a personal approach and are conducted regularly. According to the HSE, the main causes of work-related stress, depression or anxiety are workload pressures at 44%, followed by lack of managerial support at 14% and violence, threats or bullying at 13%.

A barrier to conducting stress risk assessments is that there is still a stigma, especially within industries such as construction or manufacturing, about discussing mental health issues. One way to overcome this, which can be implemented once the coronavirus crisis has passed, is to use physical screenings as a route to talking about problems relating to mental health. Regular physical wellbeing screenings can connect the dots between mental and physical ill-health and help form a trusted relationship between the healthcare worker and employee that encourages a productive dialogue. For example, there are physical signs of stress such as low energy, persistent headaches and high blood pressure that can help the health professional more easily move the conversation onto discussing mental health issues and give advice about how that employee can get the support they need. Help can still be provided during the current situation through occupational health management referrals and other virtual services, such as employee assistance programmes and remote GP access.

Services like these, as well as new starter questionnaires, are often affordable solutions that can be used by firms of all sizes, including those that don’t have the resources to deliver a more comprehensive workplace wellbeing programme. They allow an organisation to implement preventative mental health objectives from the beginning of an employee’s time at the company as well as make it easier to assess and deal with any ongoing issues.

It will probably be some time before we know the full impact of the Covid-19 crisis on employee mental health. But what’s clear is that Mental Health Awareness Week is a crucial moment for employers to take stock and look at the measures they have in place to support the mental health of their workforce. By taking an integrated approach across both mental and physical wellbeing, firms can mitigate the impact of work-related stress, improve employee engagement and protect and grow their bottom line all at the same time.