Most HR and People leaders know that mental health is a key priority — perhaps the main priority — for 2023. Three years of a stressful and traumatising pandemic, increasing economic pressures, and growing awareness of mental health issues, mean that employees increasingly need (and expect) wellbeing support from their workplace. The world has changed dramatically and working practices along with it. To ensure that both your people and business thrive, your mental health support services need to change too.
The issue is Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) often only include access to counselling or basic types of cognitive behavioural therapy compared with the over 20 types of evidence-based therapies a person might need. Equally alarming is the actual uptake of EAP services, at a startingly low 2% according to the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Poor mental health and wellbeing is costing business a lot of money — £56 billion per year, in fact (via Deloitte Workplace Intelligence), while mental wellness issues cause over half (55%) of all sick days (via CIPD Good Work Index). What’s more, as CIPD points out, 61% of resignations are actually due to mental health. Plus there is the issue of “presenteeism”, where 46% of people in the workplace are attending despite not actually being well enough to do so. But what kind of an impact is this having on individual and team performance? On customer experience, brand reputation and overall business performance?
The truth is that if you’ve had the same EAP in place for a few years now, then it’s probably time to take stock and review it. Because your organisation might not be meeting the rapidly changing wellness needs or expectations of employees. This is certainly what employees are expressing. A 2022 Work human survey found that more than half of people wanted more wellness support from their employer. One key reason for this gap in expectations is that the workplace has changed at a breath-taking rate. Nowadays, many employees — and particularly younger ones — have a more “consumer-focused” attitude to jobs. This is partly influenced by the convenience culture of services like Amazon and Netflix, where people want things how they want it — and when they want it. It is also influenced by the pandemic, where people began to embrace more flexible, internet-based working and living. So when it comes to workplace mental health support, they want services that are convenient, easy to access, and fit in with their lives (in and out of work)
With this in mind, here are four key ways to make mental health and wellbeing support much more accessible for your people in the modern workplace.
1-Mobilising line managers for early intervention
If you can support line managers in how to spot the signs of employee distress early, then this could significantly improve overall workplace wellbeing. For instance, being able to detect indicators of depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, addiction, and bullying can mean that issues get dealt with more quickly. Their role is to be there compassionately with their people, identify early issues and guide them to the right professional support – not be the expert who is expected to solve the issue. The same is true of Mental Health First Aiders who are being asked to do too much beyond their area of expertise in too many businesses.
i) Equipping managers in effective communications and empathy
A 2018 study in Occupational Medicine points out that, “Managers can play a central role in determining the occupational outcomes of workers who become unwell…however, managers often feel reluctant or insufficiently skilled to contact a sick employee, particularly when the illness is related to mental health”.
For this reason, training leaders in skills such as active listening, non-violent communication, reading body language, showing empathy and asking questions effectively is crucial. American bank USAA serves customers with military backgrounds, and builds a culture of empathy through having thousands of employees go through boot camps with drill sergeants. This empathy training for customers also translates into a more empathetic internal culture at all levels.
ii) Ensuring managers spend more one-to-one time with employees
Related to the above, not every conversation has to take place when there is an actual issue (mental-health related or otherwise). Instead, your organisation should encourage regular catchup sessions between employees and managers as a general good business practice. This lays the foundation for a trusting relationship, so that if mental health problems do arise, individuals might feel more comfortable about opening up.
2-Collecting mental wellbeing data and acting on it
People leaders can use tools such as regular anonymous surveys to identify and track issues before they escalate. This could include data around absenteeism, sickness, productivity, and customer or client satisfaction related to specific teams. The issue is many organisations lack the more granular data around mental health and wellbeing that is driving these overall performance metrics. You can’t prevent or deal with a problem you can’t see. This requires a mix of what Accenture refers to the Human + Machine in your approach.
i) Ongoing human insight generation
Even in this technologically driven world, it remains important to make time to spend time with your people to understand what’s going on with them – not just task focused interactions. Forums either in person or online where you can facilitate ‘safe discussions’ around topics are incredibly important. For example, employee resource groups at Best Buy meet on a regular basis (in person and virtually) to discuss topics ranging from managing OCD to how mental health impacts women.
ii) Harnessing digital to collect actionable data
Businesses need to better automate the collection of the right mental health data at the right level.
Lumo Health’s solution includes aggregated, anonymised SMART reports showing the key mental health topics (such as stress, burnout, anxiety or imposter syndrome) that people have raised through our RightMatch clinical service when they first seek support. Insights from the data can then be actioned to drive early prevention and target wellbeing initiatives on the right issues.
3-Changing the conversation around mental wellbeing
Employees can experience fear or shame around discussing their mental health, worrying that there might be a stigma attached to this or negative repercussions. That is why open conversation is crucial to de-stigmatise mental health issues.
i) Frame mental health in the most accessible way
When it comes to mental health, too many businesses and their leaders still have a perception that it’s an issue impacting only a few of the workforce with problems to be solved. This attitude is one of the reasons business stick with underperforming EAPs or Private Medical Insurance schemes – there’s a false reassurance that these solutions are there for those few encountering problems. The reality is everyone has a mind so every employee has mental health, they just experience it on an ever changing spectrum from suffering and struggling to just surviving and thriving. People need the right accessible mental health support and access to therapists for where they are on the spectrum, preventing issues spiralling out of control. So how we talk about mental health and wellbeing needs to change, for example Simon Sinek advocated for a change of language to ‘mental fitness’ to address this issue in organisations.
ii) Make it safe to share with no consequences.
People need to know and believe their job, promotional opportunities or general standing won’t be at risk if they open up about their mental health — either formally or informally, with peers or with managers. That is why it’s crucial to put confidentiality policies and promises in place. As well as the foundational mental illness discrimination policies, establish clear mental health at work procedures and training for managers.
4-Enabling openness from the top down and bottom up
Of course, no one should ever be pressured to discuss personal issues publicly. But if workplace leaders are open to talking about their own personal experiences of, say, depression, stress, or bereavement, then this can go a long way in destigmatising these conversations. It’s important to encourage both male and female leaders to take part in these conversations, with more male leaders such as David Beeney stepping up to ‘break the silence’.
For employees to open up, they firstly must trust in the mental health services and support available to them. I have encountered numerous times through my therapy work individuals who were reluctant to use their workplace EAPs or Private Medical Insurance as they were concerned that they had to talk to call centres or intermediaries to access therapy. It’s one of the reasons we’ve cut out intermediaries in the Lumo Health platform, helping them connect to the right therapist in five minutes through RightMatch. Once individuals open up to the right trusted experts and experience the benefits, they in turn become more open about their mental wellbeing and are more likely to share openly to encourage others.
It’s time for businesses to take faster action. The world of work is changing rapidly. Mental health and wellbeing is an increasingly essential need for everyone in the workplace. Leaders need to put into action these recommendations to make the right mental health and wellbeing support accessible for anyone, anytime or anywhere they need it across the employee experience.