While support for employee mental health and wellbeing generally has become the norm, there's still a lack of hard evidence of ROI - limiting investment and making the HR approach look woolly. How long before boardrooms demand ROI figures?
We’ve reached the stage where depression and anxiety is talked about, out in the open rather than dealt with behind closed doors, in hushed meetings as something embarrassing, an admission of personal weakness. People are more able to be people, not forced to adopt a rigid employee persona. This year’s World Mental Health Day felt more relevant and more focused on practical interventions than ever before. The global summit and package of UK Government measures, has demonstrated the new willingness to tackle mental health head-on and to pay more attention to the specifics.
According to the Government's Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers report last year, the cost of poor mental health among employees is costing employers between £33 and £42 billion. UK employers bear much of the burden of the costs of ill-health in general, chronic disease and incapacity, and HR need to have a better grasp of which particular interventions help them mitigate against these costs. In other words, talking about new attitudes to mental health, providing yoga sessions and free fruit, may feel the right thing to do, but there need to be hard numbers on Return on Investment. HR around mental health in this new context is looking increasingly woolly.
There’s been a trickle of research on the ROI of some workplace health interventions over the last 30 years. But much of it originates in the USA where employers bear significant healthcare costs and have a direct financial interest in improving workforce health and promoting early intervention, and is often carried out by the health providers themselves. The more reliable research includes a study by the large US insurance firm insurance firm LifeSolutions which found a return of between $5.17 and $6.47 (in terms of increased work productivity) for each dollar spent on the EAP. An academic study involving work with the Australian Fire Service found that mental health training for managers led to real impact on work-related absence and an ROI of £9.98 for each pound spent; while the Government’s Thriving at Work highlighted a significant return for employers investing in mental health interventions: an average of £4.20 for every £1 (with a range up to £9).
EAPs are the most commonly used workforce health intervention in the UK with close to half of the workforce (a total of almost 14 million) having access. It’s an increase of 300 per cent in just over a decade. And the use of EAPs is at the heart of the mental health question, a central resources for support on the range of issues that unsettle and undermine employees and their performance. But despite their popularity and the faith that so many employers place in them, very few providers or their clients are able to collect systematic evaluation data beyond ‘take-up’ or utilisation statistics and satisfaction surveys.
EAPA has been working with the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to change this picture, to develop a simple tool which can be used by HR professionals to estimate the impact of EAPs on workplace outcomes (available at www.eapa.org.uk). For the first time EAP providers and employers will be able to demonstrate the value of their EAPs, using the results to better inform their health and wellbeing strategy and deliver more tailored support to employees. In the early stages of its use, data from more than 100 organisations in the autumn of 2018 suggested a cost of £15.05 per employee with a return in addition to this figure of £7.97 per employee.
The more the calculator is used, the richer the dataset becomes. In turn this data can can used to revise and update the methodology, building the rigour and realism of the figures put forward to senior executives in boardrooms. There’s then a clear basis for investment in more specific mental health initiatives for employees. And over time, again, as the UK dataset grows and the anonymous data is collated and analysed, there is the detail needed for organisations and HR teams to benchmark returns and value against comparative employers in their sector and region.
About Andrew Kinder
Andrew is the former Chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association. He's a Chartered Counselling & Chartered Occupational Psychologist at OH Assist, and the Past Chair of British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s Workplace Division (www.bacpworkplace.org.uk). He was recently awarded with a Fellowship from BACP for his contribution to workplace counselling.