Managing mental health

Mental health and cancer are two of the biggest challenges affecting the wellbeing and productivity of UK workers. Edmund Tirbutt hears why the best companies foster an open culture

A forensic account of the full extent of the cost of poor mental health to the nation’s employers was delivered by Dame Carol Black in her keynote talk, Championing Health and Wellbeing in Business, at the Corporate Adviser Group Risk Forum in December.

Black, the principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and expert adviser on health and work to the Department of Health and Public Health England, revealed that employees with at least one stress-related factor average a 2.5 per cent higher work impairment than those with none and that employees with high or medium risk of mental ill health average a 16.9 per cent higher work impairment than those at low risk.

Black highlighted the link between mental health problems and quality of management, saying: “Health interventions like drugs or CBT may help but don’t address the root problems. The crucial interface is between employees, health professionals and employers, and all three need to be satisfied that, if a recovering employee returns to the workplace, it will prove sustainable.”

She continued: “What creates a good workplace? Visible senior leadership is very important, as are staff engagement and empowering employees to look after their own health. Developing an open culture is crucially important and the best companies do this.”

Black pointed to research from Robertson Cooper that shows the top driver for employee engagement is the extent to which employees believe that their senior management has a sincere interest in their wellbeing.

“You can’t have an engaged workforce that’s sustainable unless you have wellbeing but you need to consult your staff to start with as there is no right or wrong way,” she said.  

To illustrate this point, Black highlighted how BT had done a needs assessment to establish what its staff wanted and then tried to encourage small and sustainable improvements.

She also cited a poignant example of a small business with 100 dockers whose new chief executive thought his workers looked unhealthy but, after consulting them, realised that they wanted upskilling rather than a health and wellbeing programme. Some of the staff could not read or write and so, for them, upskill training, including literacy support, was far more beneficial. They subsequently improved their own health levels by voluntarily starting a football team two years later.

Another of Black’s anecdotes highlighted the “crucial importance” of employees feeling in control at work. In her previous role as national director for health and work, Black had spent half a working day with a tube-train driver and been struck by the fact that he did not feel he needed to spend more of his working day above ground in daylight. What he valued was ownership of the part of the transport system for which he was responsible. Black was struck by his proud statement: “This is my train. I’m in charge and I’m responsible for the people behind me.”

In a session entitled Minding Your Business – Employee Wellbeing Through Workplace Benefits, Unum CEO Peter O’Donnell revealed that 39 per cent of work-related illnesses in 2013/14 were caused by stress and mental illness costs the UK economy £70bn to £100bn a year. He said employers rarely have a neutral effect in this area but normally positive or negative as a result of their action or inaction.

O’Donnell said: “The skills needed for dealing with mental health are very different from what your classic HR leadership group will be used to. We have a number of large corporates that are managing mental health and wellbeing at board level and trying to get data to support them. The most important thing is to upskill HR and management, and some of the best companies are training their leaders to encourage conversations about mental health.

“Employers always get that having an engaged staff leads to more productivity, so that’s never the challenge. It’s the practical application of this. How exactly do you go about it? That’s where our opportunities come in.”  

O’Donnell said the best employers were establishing and promoting wellbeing programmes and, with an increasingly digital world making it harder for employees to switch off, incorporating mindfulness techniques. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) were also being appreciated for their ability to improve workforce resilience and provide much needed resources on medical subjects, personal finance and debt management.

Friends Life head of group protection proposition Anna Spender highlighted the importance of mental health when supporting cancer patients in the workplace. Around three-quarters of cancer patients suffering major depression do not receive treatment for that depression.

She said: “It’s important to understand when people feel vulnerable or scared, don’t feel in control any more and suffer a loss of confidence. How do line managers approach it? Do they know how to have the right conversation? Companies need to lead from the top in promoting an environment in which employees feel their wellbeing is considered and they are being supported in terms of their illness.”

Unveiling Friends Life’s new group cancer cover, Spender produced statistics showing why cancer is such a major issue for workplace health. By 2020, nearly half of people are expected to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime; more than one million people of working age are currently living with cancer in the UK; 35 per cent of new cancer diagnoses are among people of working age; and breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancer account for 50 per cent of working-age cancers.

Spender said: “The physical impact comes not just from the cancer itself but also from the side effects of drugs and treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy. There are problems with pain, fatigue and weight loss and with absences for tests and treatments following surgery.

“There is also a financial element as a result of the costs of hospital parking, extra travelling and higher heating bills from being at home more. Around four in 10 working people diagnosed with cancer have to make changes to their working lives and four in five are financially affected.”

Group risk products play a significant role for cancer patients. According to Group Risk Development (Grid) statistics, cancer accounts for 69 per cent of industry-wide group critical illness claims and 25 per cent of industry-wide group income protection claims. EAPs can be used for confidential counselling for cancer sufferers and group income protection providers are making a major contribution via pro-active rehabilitation and wellness programmes, with a lot of cancers being related to lifestyle.

Friends Life has a cancer work support service on its group income protection to provide professional intervention for employers and employees at the point of cancer diagnosis. Its new stand-alone group cancer cover product is available for schemes of 100 lives or more and will pay out £25,000 to claimants who survive 14 days. The product is intended to provide another option to critical illness cover rather than replace it. 

In her keynote speech, Black also spoke at length about cancer, highlighting research that shows the average fall in household income for a family of working age with a cancer sufferer is 50 per cent, and 17 per cent of sufferers actually lose their home.

She said: “If you go back to work after cancer or after six months of a depressive illness, it’s not always straightforward.

“But there’s been some wonderful change in the area of workplace health and the greatest has been among employers, where there has been much more change than there has ever been among my own profession.”