United Kingdom

Mental health at work: an employer’s guide

June 2019

Aon’s Charles Alberts, head of health management gives the low-down on workplace mental health.

Working in an office

Maintaining good mental health in the workplace remains a significant challenge for employers. And we know that the biggest challenge in particular is just knowing where to start. It’s such an important issue – understandably, they want to get it right.

The numbers

According to the government’s 2017 Thriving at Work report – an independent review of mental health and employers – 300,000 people leave employment each year due to long-term mental health problems. The cost of poor mental health is significant – between £33 billion and £42 billion, due to presenteeism, sickness absence and employee turnover. This equates to an average cost of between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee per year.

In addition, the Mind 2017/2018 Workplace Wellbeing Index which surveyed 43,892 employees from 74 organisations found that 66% of respondents have experience of a mental health problem at some point in their lives, while 48% of all respondents have experienced poor mental health in their current role. The issue is perhaps far greater than many believe, and there is an imperative need for action by employers.

And there’s more. The 2018 Health and Safety Executive’s Health and Safety at Work report revealed that 595,000 employees are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing); an increase from 526,000 the previous year, while 239,000 employees are suffering from a new case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18. This equates to 15.4million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, an increase from 12.5 million working days lost the previous year.

In particular, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 57 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health. 44 per cent of this is due to workload, other factors include a lack of support and changes at work. These are issues within employers’ control yet we are seeing a worrying trend upwards which suggest not enough is being done to identify and manage the risks.

Employers’ responsibility

We are finding that overall, employers generally have a positive attitude towards employee health and wellbeing: according to the Aon 2019 Benefits and Trends survey, just over three-quarters (76 per cent) agreed that they are responsible for influencing employee health and changing behaviours. But there’s still a long way to go. We also found that less than half (41 per cent) have a strategy in place to address mental health and only one third of employers have a specific budget for their health and wellbeing programme.

Benefits and Trends Survey

If we are to change the landscape of mental health in employment, a strategic approach supported by adequate funding is imperative. We are simply not doing enough to address the work-related stress endemic.

Employers: take the strategic approach

First off, employers should review the various standards set out in the Thriving At Work report (6 Core, for all employers and 4 Enhanced, for employers with 500 or more employees). Start with an honest assessment of where you are against these standards, identify the gaps and create an action plan using this as a framework.

We advocate taking a strategic approach to workplace mental health by understanding what it is you are looking to achieve, setting objectives and success measures, and an action plan that outlines the steps required to achieve your objectives. Data can be powerful to inform the strategic objectives. Indeed, the Aon Benefits and Trends Survey 2019 found that over two-thirds (69 per cent) of employers are using data to inform and improve their health and wellbeing strategy. 

Mental Health Strategy – what to include

Any mental health strategy should include awareness raising and education on mental health to start to normalise the subject and dispel any myths. In doing so, this will tackle stigma and encourage open dialogue around mental health.

Line managers too play a huge role in supporting employee health and wellbeing. Any mental health strategy should include training for line managers to ensure they have the right skills and confidence to provide support to their team. Our 2019 Benefits and Trends Survey found however that just 41 per cent of organisations are training their line managers, so many are still not equipped to support their employees’ mental health.

Employers should also ensure they provide the right mix of employee benefits and services in place:

  1. Does your current health and wellbeing offering help prevent issues from occurring in the first place?
  2. Does it enable early diagnosis?
  3. Does it provide fast treatment?
  4. Does it support those with long-term conditions?

It’s fantastic to see that many of our survey respondents are able to answer ‘yes’ to some – if not all – of the questions above. We found that Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are the most common employee benefit and can help with prevention, early detection, and treatment of more minor mental health issues. Most Private Medical Insurance (PMI) polices offer direct access to treatment rather than going through a GP, and many Group Income Protection (GIP) schemes offer early intervention for mental health issues. The trick lies in pulling all these together and clearly communicating to employees what is available, and when and how to access the benefits. When someone is struggling, it can be overwhelming to be faced with a range of options.

We’d also recommend working closely with an Occupational Health provider to help with preventative measures as well as long-term support.

The right support

Of course, the ultimate success of a mental health strategy relies on the available support within the organisation itself, whether it’s from HR, line managers or mental health first aiders nominated within the business to support individuals through times of crisis.

So, in summary, a mental health strategy should include:

  • Raising awareness around mental health issues in the workplace to help dispel stigma
  • Training line managers in mental health
  • Positive working conditions including work/life balance and reduction of work-related stress
  • Providing a mix of support including health and wellbeing employee benefits such as EAPs, PMI and GIP plus internal support such as Mental Health First Aiders
  • Clear communication of the benefits, services and support available
  • Working closely and proactively with your benefit providers

What’s next?

97 per cent of employers in our 2019 Benefits and Trends survey said employees’ expectations of their work experience was changing: better awareness and handling of mental health issues was one of employees’ top expectations. So while it’s fantastic that mental health has greater exposure in the public domain than ever before and people are starting to feel more comfortable to talk about their mental health, employers have a challenge to keep up with the pace of change and evolving their benefits and services strategies to meet the changing demands of the modern workforce.

It’s a challenge yes, but maybe it’s an opportunity too.

Aon provides expert support to help companies improve their employees financial, physical, social and mental wellbeing. From identifying opportunities to optimising existing programmes, we can help you help your employees thrive.

For more information or to discuss any of the issues outlined in this article, please get in touch by emailing us at [email protected] or call us on 0344 573 0033.


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