Business leaders must lead dialogue around mental health in the workplace says Bupa corporate director Patrick Watt
We are working in really tough economic times, with employees putting in longer and harder hours than ever before. Across the UK, people are working under greater pressure, becoming increasingly stressed, and generally feeling more anxious about the future. Indeed, among people of working age, nearly half of all ill health is now mental illness, with one in four people affected by a mental health problem in any year. One in four adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem at some point in their lives, and mental health accounts for up to 40 per cent of all time off work due to sickness. But only a quarter of those with common difficulties, such as depression or anxiety, are receiving treatment It is therefore more important than ever that we address the issue of mental health in the workplace.
However the challenge for employers isn’t just about addressing health and wellbeing issues when staff take sick leave, it’s also about prevention and building resilience in your workforce before it hits crisis point. Too many employee health and wellbeing programmes focus only on physical health, for example healthy eating and smoking cessation, and neglect the mental resilience needed for employees to cope with the challenges of work and life. Yet programmes which incorporate mental health into their strategy, for example workplace counseling sessions and personalised support plans detailing the steps needed to remain in, or return to work, often have an instant effect on mood by helping employees to think more clearly, make better decisions and ultimately be more productive.
In addition to conditions related to muscles, bones and joints, stress and anxiety are one of the most common reasons for sick leave, and our health insurance data at Bupa shows that claims relating to mental health are the fastest growing category. The biggest area of transformation for our industry is that traditional private medical insurance hasn’t typically addressed conditions like depression and panic attacks, instead focusing on purely psychiatric illnesses. Now there is greater recognition that mental health is an issue that affects us all.
In July 2013 Bupa launched “Business Fit” to all of its permanent employees in the UK, offering access to physiotherapy, psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and 24-7 access to nurses and GPs. As an employer we understand that healthier and happier employees are more engaged and therefore more productive; a win-win situation for everyone. It’s also the reason we sponsored this year’s Workwell Award, which recognises employers who demonstrate a holistic and integrated approach to improving, maximising and publicly reporting on the engagement and wellbeing of their employees.
Nevertheless, putting effective employee health and wellbeing programmes in place is only one step employers need to take in tackling mental health issues in the workplace. Business leaders must start conversations about mental health to help de-stigmatise the issue. We’ve seen politicians, celebrities and sports stars talk about their psychological health, now it’s time for heads of businesses to take to the stage and normalise this issue to ensure that those employees with a mental health problem know that help is at hand when they need it most.
Absence from work shouldn’t be the trigger for intervention; businesses and organisations need to take steps towards developing a holistic, preventative approach to employee wellbeing.
The BITC Workwell model demonstrates the benefits of taking a proactive and early intervention approach to employee wellness. The emphasis is on prevention right from the start, enabling a resilient workforce and keeping the well, well.