Already a hot topic, the focus on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace was ratcheted up several levels by the publication of Thriving at Work – the now famous Stevenson/Farmer report.

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One issue the report looked at was how the term “mental health” covers a wide range of conditions – it’s not only stress, anxiety and depression, or even disorders such as bipolar and schizophrenia – it also includes suicidal and self-harm tendencies. And, with the report finding that 15 per cent of employees have displayed at least one symptom of a mental health condition, the wide-ranging effect of mental ill-health is clear to see. However, given its complexity, such impacts may not be obvious to work colleagues – or indeed the individual – at the outset.

Getting help

Once individuals recognise the need for help – a challenge in itself – many are likely to initially see their GP. Unfortunately, general practitioners by definition are not mental health experts and are therefore probably not in the best position to clinically assess which form of therapy would be most appropriate. Additionally, mental health resources within the NHS are under constant pressure, with dependence on the so called “postcode lottery” leading to waiting lists for consultations and treatment that can run to several months.

With the consensus that early intervention leads the way to successful mental health outcomes, delays are only likely to worsen symptoms and complicate the condition, exacerbating the situation as a whole.

Since early intervention is recognised as being the best route to mental wellbeing, the Stevenson/Farmer report stated recommendations for the role of employers in driving good mental wellbeing in the workplace.

These are:

  • developing and communicating a mental health at work plan
  • building awareness of mental health among employees
  • encouraging open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling
  • providing employees with good working conditions
  • ensuring employees have a healthy work–life balance and opportunities for development
  • promoting effective people management through line managers and supervisors
  • routine monitoring of employee mental health and wellbeing.

This “pathway” is an ideal route to better workplace mental wellbeing, but how it is implemented can be open to interpretation.

Missing out

Many organisations still have no mental health strategy in place and so need to start from scratch. As with most things in life, education and knowledge is often a vital first step – businesses and their staff can’t design a mental health strategy if they don’t understand what they are dealing with.

The first step should be training and awareness, perhaps by using accredited Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses. These are available from a range of providers, and although content and delivery will differ, the key messages will help participants to:

  • identify the early stages of a mental health problem
  • help someone who’s dealing with a mental health issue
  • help stop someone from self-harming or hurting others
  • help stop mental ill-health from worsening
  • help someone have a quicker recovery
  • guide someone towards proper professional help
  • break the stigma of a mental health problem.

MHFA courses aren’t designed to produce trained counsellors, but to give participants both awareness of the issues and the skills to enable them to listen non-judgementally to colleagues. They should then have confidence to signpost sufferers to suitable help from the various agencies/organisations available – the NHS, employee assistance programmes (EAPs), health cash plans (HCPs), private medical insurance (PMI) and organisations such as Samaritans, Mind, Heads Together and Sane.

What employers can do

With signposting to early intervention the key to reducing the impact of a mental health issue, many employers can utilise the services they have available to employees in the form of EAPs – either standalone, via group risk products (group life and income protection) or group healthcare (HCPs and PMI) – which can be an important first step.

EAPs come in many shapes and sizes, and provide direct access to help via telephone calls, and increasingly, by new technology – text messages, phone apps, etc – offering individuals the opportunity to use online tools and resources to look after their wellbeing, and self-manage some of the less serious mental health conditions. In fact, some EAPs offer a mental health assessment or score.

Although these online tools are useful, people with more severe needs should seek specific clinical help from an appropriate medical practitioner.

As with most things, a variety of solutions is the best approach, matching help to individual needs. For some individuals an online service will suffice, while others may need the comfort of an anonymous phone call with a counsellor. Some require face-to-face assistance, support and treatment.

Needs must

Organisations need to take the issue of mental wellbeing seriously. They should invest in training for staff and help affected employees find assistance through both employee benefit and state solutions. Communication is key – first, employees should feel comfortable and supported discussing mental health concerns, and second, they must know where and how to pursue suitable help.

After all, there is little point in putting mental wellbeing benefits in place if staff aren’t aware of the help available and/or are too embarrassed or worried to seek assistance.

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