At any one time one in six workers is experiencing a mental health problem such as stress, anxiety or depression. According to the Confederation of British Industry these problems are the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence. Yet new research from Mind suggests that employees are still afraid of discussing mental health at work. When the charity asked HI magazine to support Taking care of business, its campaign to tackle this issue, we decided to hand over to a reader on the frontline of workplace health.
Here is what happened when Iain Laws, account director at national specialist intermediary PMI Health Group interviewed Alex Tambourides, head of Mind Workplace, a consultancy advising employers on mental health.
– Working in financial services for 15 years
– Advises companies with 250-25,000 employees
– Says: “We need to break down the taboos around mental health. Our industry has a role to play in convincing employers to take a more active stance in supporting employees to maintain and achieve positive mental health.”
– Working in mental health for ten years
– Chief executive of Hammersmith & Fulham Mind, one of 170 local Mind associations providing mental health services to local communities
– Says: “By addressing a person’s mental health you are also going to be benefitting the company’s productivity and if you do that appropriately you will also be making sure that person isn’t discriminated against and making sure you are addressing stigma, all at the same time.”
IL: When it comes to the link between employee health and productivity, a massively ignored element is mental health. I see that as a weakness for any employer thinking about health and a weakness for our industry in particular.
Perhaps a good place to start is by looking at the fact that mental health means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly in the workplace. What area does Mind focus on?
AT: Mental health is a spectrum. That includes mild depression, episodes of stress and severe depression and anxiety. Mind helps employers deal with the whole spectrum, from presenteeism through to absenteeism.
It’s actually easier to measure whether someone has a mental health problem when they are at work than in almost any other place. Your behaviour and the outcomes you are trying to achieve are quite closely and rigidly framed. You can ascertain whether someone has a mental health problem by the extent to which their functionality at work becomes adversely affected.
IL: How does Mind help employers practically?
AT: One way in which we are helping is a service called Mind Workplace, a training consultancy service for employers under a social enterprise model which is dealing with specific problems that employers are having. We are also running a campaign called Taking Care of Business, which is in its second year, which aims to help support employers to better manage and promote the mental health of their employees.
IL: How does Mind Workplace work?
AT: It functions like a consultancy service. It’s totally confidential. The first stage is to meet with the employer and identify any weak spots such as a lack of line manager training or poor sickness absence data. After that we will recommend actions that we will either take ourselves, or that the company can remedy or source from somewhere else.
IL: Have you seen any trends in the field of mental health in the workplace?
AT: The good thing is that there has been more publicity about mental health and employment than ever before. We have seen a massive increase in the amount of employers coming to us asking for assistance. That is partly because the need is increasing. It’s incontrovertible that if you shrink the workforce and simultaneously ask them to do more you will increase mental health problems.
A lot of employers are asking about resilience training. While it is good that employers are actually trying to up-skill their employees, I’m slightly sceptical because it’s almost allowing them an excuse to just pile on even more pressure. I worry that employers are actually missing some very simple things they can do to alleviate pressure.
For example, we think that each employee should have a one to one session with their manager once a month. Employers who worry that they can’t afford to extract that time are taking an incredibly short-termist view on how productivity runs in the workplace. They will make savings by having less people off sick and under-performing.
IL: A lot of employers feel empowered and know how to act in the event of absenteeism. Perhaps the area where taboos exist are the issues that lead to presenteeism. How do employers identify presenteeism?
AT: The Centre for Mental Health research estimates that presenteeism accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism. You have to remember that behind every absentee is a person who was previously at work. Employers can recognise presenteeism through interactive factors – a change in the employee’s behaviour – and through performance indicators, such as timekeeping or the quality of their work.
IL: I think there is quite a bit of fear among employers about talking about stress in the workplace because of the potential liabilities that might occur in claims against them. Have you got any advice on how they can deal with this issue?
AT: A lot of companies use the terms work-related stress and non work-related stress to measure prevalence of stress in their work place. I think those terms are wrong. The moment a person walks through the door their mental state affects their work. The answer is to define stress and to face up to the fact that as an employer if you have an employee who is stressed as opposed to under pressure their performance is adversely affected. Therefore you have to do something about it.
Employers need to get away from thinking there is good stress and bad stress. There isn’t. There is just stress and there is pressure. Pressure is good and stress is bad.
Employers also need to look beyond the legislative impetus. What employers don’t get is that the legislative impetus and the ethical impetus and the business impetus result in exactly the same thing. There is no conflict. If you do the right thing for your productivity you are doing the right thing by the law and the right thing for the person.
IL: Employers do have some legislative liabilities and duties for mental health. I’m not sure that these are always well understood. Could you summarise these for HI readers?
AT: There used to be something called the Disability Discrimination Act but that has now been subsumed into the Equalities Act. The key change is that employers are now restricted in their ability to use pre-employment health screening. Once the person is in work, the onus is still on the employer to make reasonable adjustments around the employer’s condition.
IL: Employers also have a duty of care regarding mental wellbeing under the Health and Safety Act and that has led to a big growth in the sale of employee assistance programmes (EAPs) to employers. I think there is still a miscomprehension that having an EAP discharges an employer’s responsibility. What is your take on this?
AT: It’s important to note that the take-up of EAP services is tiny compared to the level of need. At best I have seen hit of about 14% but it tends to be much lower, like 1 or 2%. I’ve seen people happily parade a figure of 5% as if that is a really good thing.
IL: Employees typically have concerns about sharing mental health issues both with the employer but also with the confidential support services like EAPs that employers provide. How can employers help break that taboo down?
AT: You need to look at reasons why people do not disclose. It’s because they feel that having a mental health problem is culturally going to be seen as a sign of weakness. On the other side, line managers fear that if someone does disclose they won’t actually know what to do about it. You have to address both issues.
One way is by conducting a communications campaign using all the tools and resources that Mind has produced as part of its Time to Change anti-stigma campaign and by signing up to Taking care of business. The other thing that they can do is to get a senior member of staff who is happy to disclose a mental health problem to act as a champion.
IL: I fully support that approach and have had success with a large accountancy firm where that visible champion approach was adopted. It revolutionised their whole approach and EAP usage went through the roof to very positive effect. It takes a fairly exceptional organisation to have that kind of enlightened leadership.
AT: It can definitely make a huge difference.
IL: What services are available to support employers, from the NHS and other providers such as Mind?
AT: In terms of services for employees you need to recognise that they are geographically sensitive. There might not be a national solution. I suggest that employers task someone with investigating what is available locally, starting with the NHS. For employers there are national services run by charities, like Mind Workplace.
IL: Group income protection insurers are spending a lot of time and effort developing their rehabilitation services. Have any of them engaged with Mind?
AT: Yes. We have also seen some very large employer-facing law firms helping their clients out of HR-related strife by proactively addressing the issue of mental health and asking us to work with them and their clients to help them act earlier.
IL: That’s very interesting because this is the role that our industry should be carrying out as routine. That someone else is already doing it
What are you doing to help employers break the taboos around mental health? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about how to create a mentally healthy workplace, check out mind.org.uk/work
Fresh findings from Mind
- 41% of employees are currently either stressed or very stressed in their jobs
- One in five workers believe that if they mention their stress levels they would be put first in line for redundancy
- 22% of those surveyed who had disclosed a mental health problem in a previous job said they had been fired of forced to quit
- 41% of workers in the public sector feel stressed by the threat of redundancy, compared to 28% in the private sector
- 48% are scared to take time off sick
- Seven in ten said their boss would not help them cope with stress
Source: Mind survey of 2,006 workers, February 2011