THE CORPORATE AGENDA

Tackling stress and mental health issues is as important today as it was in the depths of the financial crisis

DEBI O’DONOVAN

Stress-related absence is on the increase according to the latest Employee Benefits Healthcare research, to be published this month. The research shows that although employers reported a drop in absence due to stress back in April 2009, a year later such absence had risen to pre-recession levels. While just over a year ago 38 per cent of employers said stress was a major cause of absence in their organisations, the figure today is 47 per cent.

I don’t for a moment believe that staff were less stressed during the recession, in fact one would assume stress shot up. So it is telling that at a time people were afraid of losing jobs they did not dare admit how stressed they were. One can only hope that the long term physical damage to people who did not deal with their stress levels will not be too high.

The HR and benefits managers I have spoken to have been all too aware of employee stress during tough economic times and several have geared up to deal with a further increase in stress levels as the economy picks up again.

The concept of ’employee resilience’ has become common HR parlance as they try to ensure that the staff they still have will see them through any growth and expansion plans, mergers and acquisitions. This pro-active, positive approach to employees’ mental wellbeing is crucial if organisations wish to be successful.

Another surprising result from our research showed that the number of employers who felt that some of their staff were demotivated due to stress has doubled from 4 per cent in our 2009 survey to 8 per cent in our 2010 survey. Given how crucial employee engagement and motivation is to how well businesses perform, this rapid increase is worrying.

It is telling that at a time people were afraid of losing jobs they did not dare admit how stressed they were

Several of the 50 employers who attended the Health & Wellbeing Conference co-hosted by Corporate Adviser and Employee Benefits magazines last month put forward the argument that workforce health is closely aligned to workplace culture. Get that right and you are most of the way there. But equally they had taken on board just how much employers can do to set employees on the path to healthier living – reducing stress, eating better, getting regular check ups and exercising.

So there is an overall mood change for forward thinking organisations from defensive treatment of problems that were common a few years ago to a proactive agenda of promoting workplace wellbeing.

Debi O’Donovan is editor of Employee Benefits magazine

PAUL FARMER

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Most people these days have heard the statistic that one in four people will experience a mental health
problem at some point in their lives. Less familiar is the statistic that every year, one in six workers experience depression, anxiety or stress. Bearing both figures in mind, you would expect employers to recognise that mental wellbeing is an issue in every workforce, and take steps to mitigate the damaging affects of work stress, overwork and poor practice. However, time and again research has shown that most employers seriously underestimate the prevalence of mental health problems among their own employees.

Mental wellbeing at work may seem like a fluffy issue, but in business terms nothing could be further from the truth. Sick leave, ’presenteeism’ where someone turns up but isn’t being productive, and staff turnover due to stress and mental illness costs British businesses nearly £26 billion a year, or £1,035 per year for every employee. Estimates show that a sizeable chunk of this could be saved simply by better management, both managing mental health problems among staff or taking preventative measures. This could save up to 30 per cent of these costs, or £8 billion a year. These are figures no business can afford to ignore.

Stress and mental illness costs British businesses nearly £26 billion a year,or £1,035 for every employee

Businesses don’t have to be perfect and to invest staggering amounts of money; sometimes simple things, like having a staff forum, providing free fruit or simply encouraging people to take their lunch break and not work regular overtime can make a huge difference. One business we spoke to, Hewitt, introduced a health and wellbeing strategy in 2008. Since then the company has saved £700,000 net and total days lost to sickness absence have dropped by 30 per cent. Staff are a business’s most valuable asset, and employers should be able to take pride in how they treat them.

Last month Mind launched a new campaign called Taking care of business, a five year campaign aiming to improve working environments and working lives. We’re aiming to demonstrate to companies that they should be aware of how mental health affects their business, and try to safeguard their employees for the good of their staff as well as their business. In a similar vein we would encourage corporate advisers and consultants to discuss wellbeing with their clients and press the importance of the issue.

Paul Farmer is chief executive of Mind