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Guest Viewpoint: Why mental wellbeing by osmosis just won’t work

Physical and mental health support services must be integrated

What started for many with putting in place an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to tick the Duty of Care box might soon extend to mandatory Mental Health First Aid Training if the Where’s your head at? campaign wins its fight. While both aspects of support hold a very strong place, there’s a danger – in the absence of the proper structure and focus at all levels within an organisation – of their isolated implementation representing nothing more than a tick-box exercise.

There will be those employers that get it and, accordingly, reap the rewards in terms of engagement, productivity and brand equity. But for many – with stretched resources and tight budgets – the tick-box approach will reign supreme: put an approved and endorsed service in place and then relax in the knowledge that they’ve got it covered. Until, that is, those employers find that the services aren’t being used, their line managers are facing burnout and their company is looking at potential reputational damage.

From education to motivation

As mental health campaigner Neil Laybourn said at a recent conference I attended: “You wouldn’t buy a pair of trainers and expect to get fit. You need to learn how to use them.”

The same applies to mental health tools and support. It’s not that EAPs and Mental Health First Aid training represent poor solutions. Quite the contrary. It’s just that they need to form an integrated programme of physical and mental health support services: a range that appeals to all demographics and accessible via various means, from digital and online to phone and face-to-face.

Start at the beginning

Employees need education in using the services in place: education that comes as part of a cultural shift, with a focus on integrated physical and mental wellbeing at its core, and from day one of employment.

This involves simple day one wellbeing assessments and signposting to appropriate support that’s available on a self-referral basis. There must be no barriers in the shape of HR, line managers or GP referrals, otherwise this will act as a turn-off for most.

Open door access represents the way forward with regards to encouraging usage. It’s telling that nine in 10 employees said they’d feel better knowing that there was a clear treatment pathway available via the workplace to help manage a mental health or musculoskeletal issue1.

Look to the future

We’re now 18 months on from the Stevenson Farmer Review Thriving at work. There’s some way to go yet to realise the overriding vision, namely: ‘Every one of us will have the tools and confidence to understand and look after our own mental health and the mental health of those around us.’

That said, things are moving in the right direction. We’re already seeing a number of FTSE 100 companies including a focus on mental health and wellbeing in their annual reports and accounts, for example. Such a public display necessitates a focus on outcomes and outputs. No tick box exercises here.

Of course, it shouldn’t just be about the biggest companies. Organisations of all shapes and sizes need support and this year is expected to bring more accessible preventative wellbeing services for the often overlooked SME sector, along with all-important strategic support to help ensure usage. This is about authenticity. Walking the talk. There’s no room here for shiny services on dusty, just out of reach, shelves.

Jennie Doyle is head of product and marketing at Health Shield Friendly Society

1 Health Shield Insights from Twitter and Facebook Polls, October 2018