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Investing in your employees’ mental health

18 May 2023

As workplaces across the country mark Mental Health Awareness Week, employers are reminded why safeguarding employees’ mental health and wellbeing should be a business priority. What steps can employers take to address this critical issue proactively?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, the UK’s leading charity for mental health. Employers across the country are organising wellbeing days, providing opportunities to disconnect and advocating for work-life balance in an attempt to raise awareness of mental health and its impact on staff.

A focus on anxiety

This year’s focus is on anxiety and provides a good opportunity to recognise the prevalence of this condition (in any given week in England, 6 in every 100 people are diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder). This week is an important reminder for all employers of the obligations on them to safeguard not only the physical health of their staff but also their mental health.

The impact of the pandemic has seen mental health more widely discussed than ever before, although, interestingly, the first Mental Health Awareness Week was in fact held 22 years ago. How different our world has become since 2001, not least when you consider the vastly increased role that mobile phones and social media play in most of our over-connected lives today. In 2001, you could just watch a film with your family at home. Now, watching a film also involves scrolling on your mobile scanning social media whilst online shopping and paying the household bills. The increased “noise” of technology and the need to multitask at every opportunity is just one of the things taking up space in our stress container.

The economic cost

It is important to recognise why it is that mental health is so high up the business agenda. In any given week in England, 1 in 6 people, or approximately 45.8 million adults, report experiencing symptoms of common mental health problems, like anxiety and depression. By way of example, according to a report produced last year by Mental Health Foundation and the London School of Economics and Political Science, there were 10.3 million recorded instances of mental ill health over a one-year period across the UK in 2019. The cost to the UK economy of mental ill-health is estimated at almost £118 billion each year – three-quarters of this cost is due to absence days and the loss of productivity of people experiencing poor mental health.

With such a cost, it is easy to see why many employers are looking to invest in preventative measures. For many businesses, the impact of Covid and the restrictions of lockdown accelerated their drive to make wellbeing discussions a priority – no longer a “nice to have” but now an essential component of an employee’s benefits package.

Impact on younger workers

Mental health problems cut across all age groups, affecting employees with pre-existing mental health conditions and those with no previous diagnosis. The impact of life challenges, the cost of living, work-life balance and the expectations we set for ourselves within society, take their toll on many of us. And let’s not forget, we are only now starting to understand the longer-term impact of the pandemic. You only have to look at the startling statistics that demonstrate the effect of these factors on our younger workers. For example, Health Shield Friendly Society’s recent research has found that the youngest employees in the workforce, those aged 18 to 24 took the most sick days for mental health reasons, compared with those aged between 55 and 64 who were found to rarely take time off due to mental health concerns. Onward’s Age of Alienation report produced in 2022 corroborates this, finding that work-related stress, depression and anxiety has risen ten times faster among 18-34-year-olds than among over-35-year-olds since 2006. Meanwhile the proportion of 18-34-year-olds saying they feel “used up” at the end of the working day has increased by 44% since 1992, compared to 32% among older groups.

Whilst the openness of the Gen Z generation may account for some of the difference in the statistics – younger people tend to feel more comfortable citing mental health as a reason for absence – it is evident that our younger workers are being hit the hardest. This, of course, is not very surprising when you consider the impact of the Covid lockdowns on their teenage years: forced isolation, breaks in schooling and the inability to plan for the future, all increased the levels of anxiety in this age bracket and the longer term effects will clearly unfold in due course.

That said, it’s important to recognise the silence of many older workers who do not feel able to be open about their mental health at work. This age group has its own challenges in the world of work, as we have recently written about, and reaching this section of your workforce may require a different approach in encouraging them to talk about their experiences and the support they may require.

What should employers be doing?

With the statistics we are seeing, it’s no wonder employers are stepping up their wellbeing game. Of course, employers know that they have a duty of care towards their employees and a duty to make reasonable adjustments where a disability is known; we have written recently about the new ACAS guidance on mental health specific adjustments.

But offering reactive support is not going to be enough. As ever, employers need to be taking pro-active steps to prevent some of the problems arising in the first place.

As a minimum, employers should be:

  • Normalising conversations around mental health – the more employers raise awareness of the issues, the more likely it is that employees will seek support before their health is impacted. If an employee recognises the signs that their mental health is negatively affecting them, identifying the impact of work and life pressures and seeking help at an early stage will go some way to preventing longer term implications.
  • Identifying risks with the business – as with any health and safety consideration, employers need to carry out an assessment of the risk to their staff of mental health problems. Looking at workload, ways of working and manager styles are key steps in identifying where the risks lie and what needs to be done.
  • Offering wellbeing support – Employer Assistance Programmes, wellbeing rooms and mindfulness apps are commonly offered by employers as part of their employee benefits entitlements. Giving employees the chance to disconnect and access these services not only demonstrates an employer’s commitment to its employees’ mental welfare but also provides early intervention for employees who are juggling with work and life stresses.
  • Training managers - managers will often be the first people to spot an employee struggling but won’t necessarily be equipped with the skills to deal with it. Training managers in how to identify problems, how to talk about mental health and how to support a colleague in their team, is a crucial step in meeting an employer’s overall duty of care towards staff.

At Lewis Silkin, our dedicated client training team offer a range of training sessions designed to highlight the importance of mental health in the workplace, the legal implications and the role of managers in tackling the issues arising. See here or contact Lucy Hendley for more information on the way we can support your HR teams or your managers.

The good news

Whilst the statistics around poor mental health are alarming, the growing understanding within our workplaces that we must bring our whole selves to work and must strive towards inclusion wherever possible, can only be a positive thing. Employees who feel included and respected for who they are will be happier employees and this, in turn, will give them greater resilience in dealing with the everyday pressures of life. This is good news for employees and good news for business. Perhaps in another 22 years, we will learn just how to navigate the juggles of this ever-demanding world.

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