Mental Health: Turning conversation into action: Paul Moulton

Paul Moulton, Axa PPP HealthcareOne of the most welcome developments in healthcare discussions in recent years has been the increased focus on the importance of mental health, which for a long time was seen as a poor relation to physical health.

On the one hand this enhanced focus on mental health should hardly be surprising, given that the Chief Medical Officer reported in 20141 that mental ill health is the largest single cause of disability and represents 28 per cent of the ‘disease burden’ in the UK. Mental health encompasses a wide range of conditions, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia amongst many others.

Yet, despite the prevalence of mental ill health in our society, policymakers, business leaders and indeed much of the population at large have been unwilling to openly address the issue for far too long. It can only be a positive thing that as a society we now appear to be gradually overcoming this reluctance. The conversation has begun but it is time to build on this progress and meaningfully address the discrepancy that most certainly still exists between mental and physical health strategy in the workplace.

Integral to this process is the question of how mental health is discussed and managed in places of work. Employers have a key role to play in fostering a culture of understanding and support in relation to the mental health of employees – however there is a role for us all to play.

Axa PPP Healthcare commissioned research and developed a report Mental Health: Turning Conversation into action. we were keen to obtain a clearer understanding of the attitudes and experiences of employees and managers in the UK in relation to mental health, as well as to gain insight into what degree of support, if any, their employers offer to support mental wellbeing. Having interviewed 1,000 employees and 1,000 managers working in the UK for the 2015 report, in 2015/16 we surveyed an additional 1,000 employees and 1,000 managers working in the UK and a further 500 adults in the UK who have been diagnosed with a mental health related condition such as stress, anxiety and depression.

For both businesses and advisers the findings make for fascinating reading, and give grounds both for optimism and for concern. On a positive note, there is growing recognition among managers that mental health conditions represent a legitimate reason to be absent from work, with 68 per cent of managers agreeing that mental ill health is a serious enough reason for an employee to be absent from work now compared with 59 per cent who said they would have agreed with this 5 years ago. In addition, more than half of managers we surveyed also reported they would be comfortable discussing both an employee’s mental health and their physical health

Alarmingly, however, the survey showed that fewer than half of employees would honestly tell their bosses the true reason for an absence if the cause was related to mental ill health, while many managers also reported doubts about their own levels of knowledge in relation to mental health and admitted that they are nervous about saying the wrong thing or causing offence when discussing mental health with an employee at work

Indeed, the continuing low levels of support programmes that managers said are offered by employers to employees, especially among smaller sized employers, is a particular source of concern.

The report considers mental health in the workplace, attitudes to towards mental health and explores why these attitudes exist, it also discusses the support in the workplace and provides recommendations for businesses. We trust this research can play its part in stimulating discus­sion and encourage discussion and support of mental health at work.

Paul Moulton is intermediary distribution director at AXA PPP Healthcare