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Supporting ill mental health in the workplace

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A recent study by BHSF has found that the average employee takes 8.4 sick days a year due to mental health problems. However, almost half, 42% have felt the need to pretend it was a physical illness rather than a mental health issue.

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The human costs of poor mental health are steep – not only are individuals with long-term mental health disorders much less likely to find work, but an estimated 300,000 also lose their jobs every year. The problem is growing – according to the UK Labour Force Survey, the number of sick days taken due to mental health problems increased from 13m days in 2010 to 15.8m days in 2016, accounting for nearly 1 in 8 of all workdays lost to ill health.

Making mental health support part of your daily DNA

For more enlightened employers, awareness and understanding of the importance of employee mental health have grown to such an extent that managing it has become an essential part of their people management strategy. Regrettably, for others, the picture is far from encouraging and the continuing stigma and prejudice associated with mental ill health do neither employers or employees living with mental health issues any favours.

AXA PPP healthcare research shows that over two thirds (69%) of MDs, CEOs and business owners don’t believe that suffering from stress, anxiety or depression is a serious enough reason for employees to be absent from work. No surprise then that, according to Business in the Community’s latest Mental health at work report, just 13% of employees felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager. Alarmingly, of those who disclosed a mental health issue, 15% were subject to disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go before we can claim with confidence that employers throughout the land are properly supporting mental health at work.
Here are AXA PPP healthcare’s five key areas to look at to ensure good employee wellbeing:

1) Workplace culture

Building and maintaining a positive, supportive workplace culture needs to be led from the top, with business leaders and senior management demonstrating their awareness of and commitment to safeguarding employees’ mental health. Central to this is the promotion of a healthy work/life balance to lessen the likelihood of overwork and burn-out – for example, if bosses make a point of leaving work on time, others will follow their lead.

2) Working well

Employers can encourage a wellness culture in a number of ways. These can include flexible working, encouraging employees to take regular breaks (and all their holiday) and, if practicable, even having email ‘blackouts’ outside of working hours. HR is well placed to track employees’ uptake of holiday and can use the information to prompt line managers to make sure their reports are taking enough time off to rest and recharge.

3) Work/life balance

A good work/life balance is essential for employee wellbeing. To avoid the pitfalls of overworking, try to encourage employees to work to their contracted hours. It is good policy to encourage and support employees to do their best when they’re at work but also to make the most of their own time, unhindered by workplace concerns, when they’re done for the day. It will help them to become more resilient and less likely to succumb to stress and fatigue.

4) Diet and exercise

While HR professionals may feel it’s not their place to counsel employees on lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise, these can have a significant impact on physical and mental health and, in turn, on performance and productivity. Indeed, poor physical health can adversely affect mood, self-esteem, energy levels and resilience. Even simple measures such as encouraging a healthy, balanced diet (which employers can facilitate by ensuring canteens, vending machines and food delivery services offer healthy choices) and regular exercise (through gym discounts and promoting lunch-time walking groups and sports such as five a side football) can pay dividends by improving employees’ physical and mental health.

5) Building resilience and delivering a robust mental health programme

Confident, psychologically secure employees are an asset to any employer and, by taking the lead on introducing measures such as those described above, HR professionals can go a long way to ensuring their organisation successfully supports employee health and wellbeing. Don’t underestimate communication as part of your strategy, it is key to join the dots between health and available services for your employees. Support your people to stay at work or aid their return to work. There is a strong interrelationship between mental and physical health and all your benefits and services should combine to offer a whole systems approach which supports reasonable adjustments for physical and mental wellbeing. Seek employee feedback with a combination of informal and formal approaches; this will help understand where your strategy has gaps in the eyes of your employees. Act on this feedback to reinforce your commitment to change.

Find out more about how to keep company culture healthy on AXA PPP healthcare

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