It is estimated that around one in six employees is depressed, anxious or suffering from stress-related problems at any one time. While we know that the workplace can be a contributory factor to these issues, research shows that well-trained leaders and line managers can have a powerful and positive impact in promoting and sustaining good mental health at work.
Not only does this fulfil an employer’s legal duty of care and show the organisation to be caring, ethical and responsible, it also reduces the costs associated with mental ill health and presenteeism.
When you consider that the cost of poor mental health to the economy as a whole is estimated at between £74 billion and £99 billion per year and that the annual cost to employers alone is between £33 billion and £42 billion, these are no small costs.
These findings were published in the recent Thriving at Work report, an independent review commissioned by the government last year into how employers can support the mental health of their employees.
Mental health stigma: not gone yet
Yet despite these huge costs, there continues to be a negative stigma attached to mental health within our society and in our workplaces.
Indeed, the Mental Health at Work report published last year by Business in the Community (BITC) found that only 11% of employees had discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager and that half of employees said they would not discuss mental health with their line manager.
So, what can employers do to address this silence and improve the culture of acceptance around mental ill health?
The Thriving at Work report found that while many employers want to do the right thing, one of the biggest barriers is that line managers lack the training, skills or confidence to have the right conversations and effectively support others.
Similarly, the BITC’s Mental Health at Work survey found that only 24% of managers have received some form of training on mental health at work.
Clearly an important first step for employers is to ensure that line managers are trained in mental first aid so that they are better equipped to deal with difficult and challenging situations and are confident in having practical and engaging conversations with their teams on a regular basis.
And certainly, over the last 12-18 months, we’ve seen an increase in the number of mental health first aiders and mental health champions in the workplace as more and more employers recognise the need for action.
But simply investing in training is not enough.
Developing mental first aid skills is a process that needs to evolve over time and it is therefore vitally important that post training support is also in place. Applying and sustaining newly learned behaviour in the workplace is difficult and line managers will need this longer term support and guidance to ensure they get this right.
While many employers understand the role of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) in providing counselling and support services for employees, there is much less awareness around the training, coaching and guidance services offered by EAPs for line managers specifically.
Many EAPs offer training courses, either via webinars or face-to-face sessions, on a wide range of issues facing line managers including building mental resilience, mental first aid, managing change, mediation and trauma support. For employers, using an EAP to deliver mental first aid training also ensures the provision of overall clinical governance and the assurance that their line managers are putting the right processes and procedures in place.
While for line managers, the ongoing coaching and guidance that can be provided by an EAP ensures that they feel confident and supported as they put their training into practice.
Most EAPs will also offer Manager Consultation and Referral services, usually as part of their core service. The former provides managers with the opportunity to discuss workplace issues and challenges that they may be facing as a manager and provides support and guidance to help manage those situations in a constructive way.
Such issues might include addressing performance, conflict or supporting a member of their team who has suffered some form of personal crisis. The referral service enables managers to formally refer employees to the programme, always with the full consent of the employee in question.
All EAPA registered providers meet the industry standards and are experienced in providing manager coaching and support services but employers should talk to their provider to understand what is and isn’t covered by their existing EAP in this area.
While there is still much work to be done, we are seeing positive steps being taken both by employers and the government to create a parity of vision between mental and physical health in the workplace.
As they seek to create mentally healthy workplaces, employers should maximise opportunities to work more closely with their EAP partners tapping into their expertise and unlocking the value and potential of this resource to support both employees and line managers in better managing mental health.
With 15 years' experience in the EAP industry Neil has worked in a variety of leadership roles spanning both the commercial and operational sides of the business. He is currently Head of Network for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean at Optum International and Chair of EAPA UK.