Why early intervention matters for workplace mental health

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Last year alone, poor mental health was the primary cause of long-term absence for 22 percent of organisations, with employees feeling too stressed or anxious to face going in to work. This was up from 13 percent in 2016. However, 45 percent of those who take time off for mental health reasons give their employers another excuse for their absence. Symptoms of mental health can build up when not properly recognised or assessed, but they’re hard to combat when so many employees don’t feel confident enough to open-up about how they’re feeling.

It’s important to create a workplace culture in which people can talk about what’s troubling them, whether it’s emotional or financial worries, struggles with addiction or personal concerns. If problems are addressed when they first arise, businesses can support struggling employees from the start before problems really begin to take their toll.

Here’s how to encourage your employees to access early mental health support and provide the first line of defence against mental ill health.


Lay the groundwork

Many who suffer from mental health problems don’t get the help they need straight away. Many wait, on average, ten years between first experiencing symptoms and receiving help. The Mental Health Policy Commission believes the most effective way to tackle these concerns is to reduce the ‘prevention gap’. This is the number of people who would benefit from receiving preventative treatment, against the number who currently receive it.

As people spend so much time at work, business managers can play a key role in establishing the necessary advice, by building a workplace culture where employees feel empowered to seek preventative support for issues which may have a harder-hitting impact in the future if left unaddressed. Letting staff know there are structures in place – like well-being resources or an employee assistance programme – helps normalise the topic of mental health and reduces stigma.

Before you start implementing any changes though, make sure you conduct the necessary research to identify how helpful different support options will be for your staff. What are the top causes of absence for your employees? Are you going through any organisational changes at the moment? Are teams putting in longer shifts at the office, due to rising workloads? How many people are making use of the support you already offer?

The answers to these questions will help you create preventative strategies which assist the majority of your workplace.


Equip leaders

Creating a supportive culture in your business needs to start from the top, so staff feel they can approach line managers about sensitive issues, without worrying about confidentiality or being treated differently. Equip leaders with the skills needed to spot early signs of mental ill health. Encouraging them to learn more about it and how to spot signs, in order to filter messages through your company.

Line managers work closely and communicate with their teams every day, so they’ll be well placed to notice any changes and promote timely interventions. Provide them with mental health first aid training so they know how to support those already experiencing difficulties too. There’s no simple answer for someone suffering from mental ill health, but you can prepare leaders with proactive and reactive support measures, so they feel confident assisting in a variety of situations.


Empower individuals

Mental ill health can be difficult to spot, not just in someone else but in yourself as well. This is because stress affects the way our brain performs and impairs our ability to think clearly. Common short-term responses to stress are reduced reasoning and unhelpful ‘black or white’ thinking. The part of our brain dealing with fear becomes more active as part of a ‘fight or flight’ response. Long-term exposure to stress can lead to loss of memory, concentration, confidence, and even  cause or aggravate mental health problems.

Any workplace scheme providing regular mental health support and training should encourage employees to think about their own well-being too, as well as being able to spot signs of ill health in others. Businesses can provide emotional employer-sponsored resources in a number of ways such as  through employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or through early intervention methods. However, when it comes to mental health education, concerns around mental illness can be very personal and employers need to take a sensitive approach for employees to feel they can open up. Remember, a workshop environment might not have the anticipated effect or participation if there is not a high level of discretion.


Maintaining momentum

Mental health isn’t black and white. It’s not the case that you’re either mentally ill or completely ‘recovered’. Everyone has ups and downs throughout their lives, which is why it’s important to view optimum mental health as a continuum. To keep up with your employees’ changing health needs, you should put adaptable structures in place to help them at all times. Once you’ve introduced wellbeing services to your workplace, continue to update them to make sure they’re effective.

Develop mechanisms for feedback and use existing wellbeing data through staff surveys, turnover, patterns from EAPs, absence data and sharing of good and poor practice to assist in updating schemes. This will also help you identify ongoing trends and if there are particular times of the year, when well-being services are used more than others.

In business, our people are our most important asset and if we primarily employ individuals for their minds, it makes sense to ensure employees are as mentally healthy and as productive as possible. The common attributes of good organisations are to listen to what their employees are saying and to commit to positive changes from the start, to create the most robust support mechanisms your employees really need.


Liz Walker is HR Director at Unum UK