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Employee benefits and mental health: actions speak louder than words

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Mental health is an increasingly well-publicised topic and it’s fair to say that its presence in the headlines – thanks in part to high-profile advocates of mental health causes such as those supported by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, for example - has gone a long way in helping to reduce the stigma historically associated with it. But does the increased profile of an issue go far enough in actually helping to reduce its prevalence?

Unfortunately, being high on the news agenda does not automatically lead to greater access to support for those struggling with their mental health. To pen a cliché, sometimes talk is cheap. You only need to run a quick google search of the news around ‘Blue Monday’ – the catchy name given to the third Monday in January, purportedly the most depressing day of the year - to see that many of the results are not signposting people struggling with depression to places where they can receive support, but are instead articles that list the various ways you can spend money to beat the blues. A host of brands somewhat cynically leapt on the Blue Monday bandwagon to encourage people to book a holiday or purchase the latest wellbeing fad. I even saw one firm that had somewhat bizarrely used the opportunity to sell cheese.

When it comes to serious mental health issues, a holiday and some cheese isn’t going to cut it. Some fairly bleak statistics indicate that despite a growing openness about mental health issues, the problem is not going away. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that, in 2017, there were 5,821 suicides registered in the UK. Men account for three quarters of this figure; on average, a shocking 84 men take their own lives every week. The most common age for men to commit suicide is 45 - 49, whist for women it is 50 - 54.

The UK also now has the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, an issue particularly prevalent in young girls. A recent report based on data from GP practices across the UK showed that self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16 rose by 68% between 2011 - 2014. It is a distressing trend that shows no signs of abating. In February 2016, The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) carried out a survey of schools to gain a greater understanding of the mental health issues they are facing. The subsequent report concluded: “The results of the survey support concerns that there are worryingly high levels of mental health and well-being issues among young people and that the prevalence of these issues has increased during the past five years.”

Whilst this doesn’t make for easy reading, it highlights that there is a good chance that your existing and future workforce will almost certainly include people who are struggling with their mental health. And despite pledges in the recently published NHS long-term plan for additional funding for mental health services, recent reports indicate the severity of the ongoing challenge it is facing.

It is clear that there is a very real need for people to have increased access to mental health services, and as an employer, it is worth considering if there is more that your employee benefits scheme can do to support your workforce with their mental health. Creating an open and supportive culture where people feel able to talk about their mental health struggles is a great place to start, however some of your employees may still find it difficult to share. It is important not to rely on the assumption that, just because you have invited people to be open about their concerns, that they will be. Consider introducing training to enable people at all levels of the company – not just those in managerial or HR roles – to understand what the warning signs are, and how to identify people potentially in need of some support. This is not about being ‘nosey’ or intrusive into someone’s life. It is simply ensuring that anyone who may be showing signs of emotional strain are not ignored and are made aware that help is available should they need it.

Of course, it is then important to ensure that appropriate, professional support is accessible. If your employee benefits scheme already includes private healthcare, it is likely that this will contain access to some therapeutic support. The current trend is towards short-term Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), designed to help people change negative patterns in how they think, feel and behave. It can be an effective therapy for many types of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. For some, however, longer-term, more traditional talking therapy may be necessary. Whilst this can become costly and impractical for a business to fund in full, you could consider offering some financial assistance, perhaps via means testing to ensure those who are least likely to be able to self-fund are still able to receive support.

At the very least, your employee benefits scheme should provide employees with information about various types of support available and signpost the route to finding the right help for them. A good place to start is the website of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP), which provides a directory of registered professionals. It is worth noting that any therapy undertaken by an employee should be completely confidential and independent of their employer, even if you decide to offer support with its funding. It is important that staff feel able to address their mental health issues freely and openly, without the fear of consequences at work.

Mental health is likely to continue to receive greater profile over the coming years. Ensuring that you are doing all you can to provide your employees with access to help with their own mental health struggles will ensure that this increased profile translates into genuine action that goes some way in helping to tackle the issue.

Xexec is a leading employee benefits provider who value the importance of dealing with mental health, and have a lot of benefits in place to tackle this issue. Get a demo with one of our Employee Engagement consultants today to find out how we can work together.

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