Future-proofing against poor mental health

Suzanne Monk
Clinical Governance Officer
FirstCare
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Mental health remains an endemic issue in the UK. In the workplace, absence caused by mental health-related conditions has continued to rise year-on-year since 2011.

In the face of this rise, it is worrying that a question mark still remains over who ultimately has responsibility for the management of metal health in the workplace. Is it the employee themselves? The NHS? The employer? Many organisations still shy away from tackling mental health head on, but as insufficient funding continues to hamstring the NHS, employers will need to take a more proactive role.

Analysis recently undertaken by FirstCare predicts that in 2017, workplace absence will hit a new high. Across the country in December 2016 alone, 23 million working days were lost. Importantly, this significant increase was driven by the rise in mental health conditions. If this current trend continues, mental health conditions will overtake coughs, colds and flu and musculoskeletal injuries as the most common reason for workplace absence in 2017.

Future-proofing your business to mitigate against this threat will require a refresh of your current wellbeing strategy. A workforce with poor mental health can have a serious detrimental impact on business, affecting productivity, revenue, motivation amongst the workforce, exhaustion and burnout, and increased staff turnover.

Assess the mental health risk 

All employers have a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees. This includes minimising the risk of stress-related illness or injury to employees. Undertaking a generic risk assessment is the first step to take in identifying departments that are high-risk. Risk assessments should also be reviewed regularly, particularly at crunch points in the year or when there are large management changes within the company. A generic risk assessment might then be followed by a personal risk assessment, if there is concern that one or more employees are high-risk.

Develop a mental health policy

If your organisation doesn’t already have a mental health policy in place, this is the first thing to consider. A mental health policy should be developed and enshrined within the company culture. It should outline an organisation’s commitment to promoting and monitoring mental health and acknowledge the importance of creating a "safe environment" for employees. For a mental health policy to be effective, it must be implemented from the top, led by the senior leadership team and senior management.

Train your managers

Line managers play a pivotal role in supporting employees with mental health conditions as they are often the first point of contact for a person with a mental health problem. They can spot the signs early, helping to ensure something minor doesn’t become a more long-term problem. In the same way line managers would instinctively recognise if an employee had a physical health problem, they should be trained to recognise mental health conditions and signpost them to relevant support services. 

Introduce mental health first aid

Forward-thinking organisations should consider introducing mental health first aid. In the same way that organisations commonly have a role for providing physical first aid, mental health first aid will help to identify those crucial warning signs, provide help and reassurance and effectively guide someone towards the right support services. Recognising that current first aid legislation fails to make adequate provision for mental ill health, the Government is now considering a motion requiring all organisations to have trained mental health first aiders.

As with any health and wellbeing challenge, it’s important to get the foundations right. Thinking innovatively and approaching mental health with the same precision and urgency that you would physical illness will help future-proof your business. As we start 2017, it’s more important than ever that health and happiness become partners in your strategy. An organisation that does not currently have a strategy in place may consider investing in an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which will help to both assess levels of risk and develop a mental health policy. Most EAP products will also include counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which managers can direct employees to for support.   

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