Most business owners or company directors would instinctively agree that having healthy staff is likely to lead to greater productivity and engagement as well as reduced absence. The problem, though, has traditionally been that not enough think sufficiently about it to undertake genuine attempts to improve the wellbeing of their employees.

Nor do enough bosses even accept this is something an employer should do, despite evidence that in many cases the job itself can be a contributing factor to ill health. In the past it has been all too easy to implement token gestures, such as free fruit in the office or a subsidised gym membership, without truly addressing the issue of why staff become ill.

For many employees, it is mental and emotional health that is the biggest issue. A YouGov survey commissioned by Mind in 2014 found over half (56 per cent) of people say they find work very or fairly stressful, but don’t feel able to tell their employers; evidence perhaps that there is still much room for improvement around how well organisations approach this topic.

This is now starting to get more attention, however. Annie Broadbent, a counsellor at health and wellbeing workshop provider RESET, says she is seeing greater interest in mental health from employers, on the back of a number of high-profile campaigns. “The Time To Change initiative is one example of the changing culture and perhaps even more encouraging is the City Mental Health Alliance,” she says. “These are important examples of the first important step to addressing the stigma around mental health, which is opening up the space to talk about it.”

Ironically, one reason why the issue of stress and mental health is now getting more prominence could be because this was an area employers neglected during the worst of the downturn. “The biggest change to corporate wellbeing happened after the credit crunch in 2007-8, when people started to question its value and the return on investment,” says Dr Chris Tomkins, head of proactive health for AXA PPP healthcare.

“However, the age of austerity created its own wellbeing issues as businesses tried to maintain or grow service levels with fewer staff, leading to stressed employees who were also suffering from external factors such as personal finance worries.” AXA’s own figures suggest around one in four (24 per cent) people working in organisations with more than 250 staff have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, he adds, compared to one in five (20 per cent) for smaller firms.

“Employers have made significant investment in support to address and manage mental health and stress in the workplace”

There are a number of steps organisations can take to help improve the mental wellbeing of employees. Matthew Gregson, consulting director at Thomsons Online Benefits, suggests stress management classes, massages and healthy eating programmes can help to lower stress among employees who may be feeling overworked or under pressure. “Of course, an even better solution is to prevent stress becoming an issue in the first place,” he says. “This might mean leaders need to evaluate business practices, look at how these are increasing stress levels and take steps to rectify the problem.” Offering flexible working can help, he adds, as this can help create a better work-life balance.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs), meanwhile, can provide a confidential source of support for those feeling under pressure, whether work or home-related. “In recent years, employers have made significant investment in support to address and manage mental health and stress in the workplace, and EAPs have become an integral part of this,” says Andrew Kinder, chairman of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

“Offering confidential help this way is cost effective for employers and provides a high standard of professional advice that can be accessed, in most cases, faster through EAPs than through NHS primary care services.”

Meditation can also help counter excessive stress, although this has yet to be adopted by employers in the UK in the same ways as it is in the United States, says Graham Doke, meditation expert and founder of the Anamaya app, which is designed for employees to use in a lunch hour to unwind. “Meditation is singularly the most powerful tool we have to assist us with our emotions and consequently our behaviour,” he says. “Rather than being shunned, it should be actively promoted in the workplace.”

Many employers are already moving to help improve the wellbeing of staff. In 2014, building society Nationwide developed a “mental health resilience strategy”, which revolved around educating managers in how to build resilience in themselves and their teams through monthly workshops. The business has since saved around 5,500 working days through employees getting support to help with issues, says Human Resources director Ann Brown, and the average number of days lost to mental health issues has fallen to 28.5 compared with a national average of 45.

“Alongside this, we offer benefits for individual employees, including access to up to £10,000-worth of mental health medical cover, career breaks, the option to buy extra holiday, an EAP and occupational health service,” says Ms Brown. “Overall, we want to reduce the risk of mental-health issues causing employees to become ill and quickly rehabilitate those who are.”

Breakdown protection insurer Domestic & General has also put an emphasis on improving the mental health of its employees, working with the charity Mind to train its HR team in how to spot the signs of stress. “Rather than attempting to counsel employees ourselves, the training provided us with a practical toolkit, helping us to understand what mental health organisations do, how they can help and how to refer our employees accordingly,” says Nicki Perry, Domestic & General’s HR manager.

“Employers should always remember that, while they need to be aware and sensitive to the issues, managers are not trained counsellors and shouldn’t try to deal with issues of their team members themselves. Instead they should be equipped with enough knowledge to signpost people to the right help and support.”

Increasingly, employers also need to make sure employees are not constantly thinking about work, particularly if they are looking to engage younger workers, says Steve Hewitt, HR director at software firm Lumesse. “One of the key ways in which organisations can engage with employees is, ironically, to not always engage with them,” he says. “Many younger employees do not wish to emulate the 24/7 mindset adopted by generation X [people born between the early-1960s and early-1980s]. They are more protective of their downtime.”

This could include putting in place measures to help them relax while at work, which could be as simple as creating a dedicated area for non-work activities. Darren Fell, managing director of Crunch Accounting, realised the need to prevent staff from burning out after almost doing the same himself while building up two businesses.

“We realised our team were mostly taking their lunches sat at their desk simply because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, so we put in lots of quiet breakout areas and comfy sofas for people to relax,” he says. “It’s great for people to be able to get away from their computer and read a book for a while. You really have to look at the whole picture when it comes to employee wellbeing.”

By Nick Martindale, as published in Raconteur on 24th March 2015

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