Mike Blake, Director at Willis PMI Group (United Kingdom), explains how companies may be leaving themselves exposed to potential risk by failing to establish a culture of openness around mental health.

The stigma around mental illness is very real and, despite the progress made in recent years, it remains a significant issue for British businesses.

(ISHN Editor’s note: The mental health stigma remains a significant issue for U.S. businesses as well.)

A recent study conducted by TNS on behalf of Willis PMI Group revealed the extent of the problem. It found that 20 percent of British workers are skeptical about colleagues who take time off as a result of mental health issues.

Furthermore, 21 percent believe colleagues who have previously suffered from mental health issues are less able to fulfil their job role properly, this despite 48 percent saying they have worked with a colleague who suffered from mental health issues.

These stats highlight two things – that mental health issues are prevalent in the workplace and that attitudes towards sufferers are often unhelpful.

This creates a situation where fear of judgment may prevent employees from seeking help and make returning to work more daunting for people who have spent time off due to mental health issues. In turn, this leaves businesses open to the potential of long-term sickness absence and employers’ liability claims.

A rising tide of stress-related claims

Urgent attention is required from employers to ensure this economic and societal problem is not left unchecked.

In the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s (CIPD’s) Absence Management Survey 2015 (United Kingdom), stress and mental ill-health featured among the top four causes of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual workers. In the case of non-manual workers, stress is the number one cause.

This is one of several factors which, together, could contribute to an increase in the volume of employers’ liability claims. Due to a tightening of case law around stress claims brought in employment tribunals and a prevalence of “no win, no fee” solicitors, it is possible we will see more stress claims brought as personal injury claims, which attract the payment of costs and therefore increase the cost of settlements.

(ISHN Editor’s note: the potential for employee stress claims to be brought as personal injury claims in the U.S. may not be as forthcoming as in the UK, due to U.S. workers’ compensation laws. But the rising awareness of mental health issues potentially affecting workplace safety and health cannot be ignored.)

There is real potential for this trend to continue over the coming years, creating an extra cost burden on top of the negative impact in terms of absence, productivity and reputational damage.

This situation necessitates a new approach to employee healthcare, which takes a holistic view by integrating insurance, employee benefits and occupational health more effectively than has traditionally been the case.

Employers should not only be looking at how they can support their staff in case of illness, but should also be looking to implement preventative measures and the appropriate culture to ensure issues are identified and tackled before they develop.

A culture of openness

The first step in doing this is to establish a proper reporting structure for absence related to stress or mental health issues in order to develop a better picture of the problem.

Good data is crucial in identifying areas where problems are most acute and developing appropriate solutions, so it is important to establish a uniform standard for reporting.

This might also include staff who are potentially at risk of developing issues or regularly suffer from stress without it resulting in absence. But, in order to take a reading on this, it is essential to develop a culture of openness that allows staff to feel they will not be judged if they report feeling unwell.

Initiatives such as empathy training, which can be introduced to staff as part of personal development programs, can help to foster a greater understanding of how to interact with colleagues in a sensitive manner that promotes mutual understanding. Training might also include guidance on how to identify when colleagues are struggling and how best to approach them.

Stress risk assessments can also be conducted, taking a view of issues such as workload, work patterns and environment to generate insight into an employee’s mental state.

A focus on mental wellbeing

A shift in culture must also be accompanied by a more proactive approach to treatment that provides staff with access to continuous support and encourages a general focus on wellbeing.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), for example, are cost-effective benefits that provide employees with access to 24/7 telephone helplines and trained counsellors. They are regularly included as standard in Group Income Protection (GIP) policies.

In addition to helpline support, counselling can be delivered face-to-face and offered as an independent employee support intervention.  A typical program is short-term treatment of up to eight one-hour sessions, focusing on a specific therapeutic practice such as cognitive analytic therapy (CAT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or person-centered counselling. Payment for such treatment will sometimes also be included in GIP policies.

Aside from such targeted treatment, businesses can look to introduce initiatives such as mindfulness training. Mindfulness finds its origins in Buddhist meditation but it is increasingly being taught as a secular practice and can provide people with methods for dealing with unhelpful thoughts that can be worked into everyday activity.

Such methods may seem to be a little left-field, but the tools and support for implementing such practice are now widely available and mindfulness courses can even be completed online.

By combining an analytical approach with easy access to treatment and a focus on prevention, businesses can quickly establish themselves as purveyors of best practice. Not only will this help to reduce risk and exercise greater control over absence, it will mark them out as employers of choice.

Mike Blake is Director at Willis PMI Group (UK)

Source: Safety &Health Practitioner (UK) www.shponline.co.uk