The mental health threat to your business

Here, Amanda Smith from the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association looks at the potential damage that ignoring the mental health of employees could do to your business and assesses the first steps you can take to help your business and your employees.

The link between mental wellbeing, productivity and performance

Promoting the mental wellbeing of employees can deliver significant economic benefits for an organisation in the shape of increased commitment and job satisfaction, staff retention and improved productivity and performance, as well as reduced staff absenteeism. And alongside the benefits, the costs are worth considering too, particularly when they include lost productivity because of sickness absence, early retirement, increased staff turnover and increased budgets for recruitment and training to replace lost staff.

Evidence also shows that productivity can be reduced through the lower level of performance of employees who are at work but experiencing stress or mental health problems – otherwise known as presenteeism. In fact, a recent report estimated that impaired work efficiency associated with mental health problems costs £15.1 billion a year, which is almost twice the estimated annual cost of absenteeism (£8.4 billion).

And if the commercial rationale for promoting good mental health in the workplace wasn’t enough for you, it’s also vital to acknowledge the legal requirements for employers to do this. These include an employer’s duty of care to its staff in addition to the Health and Safety Executive’s standards for managing work-related stress and employment legislation covering equality, anti-discrimination, health and safety, maternity and parental leave and flexible working, to mention a few.

The best place to start?

When it comes to promoting good mental health and supporting employees who may be suffering from mental health issues, the first thing you need to do is evaluate what you are already doing – or not.

Perhaps start by thinking about what you’d do if an employee came to you with a mental health related issue. Maybe there are problems in the employee’s marriage and they’ve begun drinking alcohol heavily as a way of self-medicating. We can probably all appreciate how this happens. But what about the potential impact of this on your business and your customers? How would you currently help this employee before the issues in their personal life got too much and started to affect your business?

Can you really say that your company has an organisational focus on employees’ health and wellbeing? Do you have a strategy that targets prevention as a priority and has interventions available to support employees, should the need arise? These might be access to mental health information, or even a confidential employee helpline.

The chances are, the answer to this question is no. Or maybe just a little bit. But usually when there’s been a problem with one member of staff in particular.

Prevention really is the best cure

With so many mental health issues being related to stress and anxiety – issues that can be amplified within an SME, for example – the prevention, reduction and management of work-related stress is a key component in your quest to protect your organisation from the negative impact of mental health issues.

There are plenty of ways that you can test the mental health of your workforce and many don’t require significant financial or time investment. Employee surveys (anonymous, as required), as well as a brief analysis of absence and staff turnover rates, as well as more informal chats about what’s happening with them and how they’re feeling (arguably much easier in smaller companies) are all ways that you can gauge how people are feeling mentally and give you the opportunity to make quick and simple changes to facilities, procedures, individual responsibilities in the office, the office environment or team structures.

Also consider how you can create ways for employees to access appropriate support and treatment for stress and anxiety. For example, can you encourage members of your team to assess their workloads and ask for assistance if they’re struggling to get through what they’re expected to do? Have you been meaning to recruit another member of the team for ages and been putting it off? Would you be able to reduce the stress and pressure on the business by taking this type of positive action?

Alternatively, are there ways in which you can incorporate flexible working patterns into your business that take some of the stress away from employees who are required to juggle work and family commitments? It’s not a solution that’s suitable for every business, but where you might be able to demonstrate some flexibility can ensure that the stress on employees is minimised and their focus on their work is maximised.

Supporting employees with longer-term mental health issues

Of course, not all mental health issues are so easily prevented. And in some cases it may be necessary to connect employees with external organisations and professionals who can help an individual to manage mental health issues.

Here an employee may be able to access mental health information through the company’s intranet or a confidential employee helpline or employee assistance programme (EAP). It’s through this type of service that employees can access clinicians who are trained in screening for depression and anxiety issues. Trained counsellors will talk with them about core personal, family or work issues that are affecting how they’re feeling and the ‘normal’ running of their everyday life and create a pathway in which issues or conditions can be managed.

As we’ve already acknowledged, 20% of your workforce could be affected by mental health issues in the course of one year, although not all will require external counselling support. However, the provision of information about mental health, advice on how to help yourself and signposting to external services such as EAP helplines can enable you to keep your focus on your day job and your business outlook remaining healthy and strong.

Spotting the warning signs

Supporting an employee with a long-term mental health condition can be as rewarding as it is challenging but throughout, meeting the operational needs of the organisation is paramount. To ensure this, training for staff to recognise the early warning signs of a mental health problem is a great investment.

This proactive approach enables line managers and key staff to be able to support employees with longer term mental health conditions, helping them to remain productively in work. Often, the individual experiencing mental health issues may not recognise their own early symptom pattern so colleagues or managers who have been trained can be vital for early intervention and sustained recovery.