Depression. Anxiety. Stress. Burnout. Loneliness, all much talked about workplace issues. In fact, discussion has proven so powerful it has been an instrumental catalyst of change. Increasing numbers of employers are taking action to reduce the taboo of mental health and support employees. Many employers, too, are implementing a top-down approach, with people leading by example, sharing their personal experiences with their workforce. As a society, we are opening up like never before.
Yet rates of mental ill health among the UK workforce remain worryingly high – and often form in the workplace. According to the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, of the 1.7 million workers suffering from work-related ill-health overall in 2020/21, half are experiencing stress, depression or anxiety.
By way of comparison, musculoskeletal disorders (MSK) are the next highest at 28 percent, while other types of illness were grouped together at 22 percent. Of the new and long-standing cases of work-related ill health caused or made worse by COVID-19, stress, anxiety and depression made up 449,000 of the cases (70 percent of the total).
Shifting awareness to action
Employers are all too aware that there are issues, and to some extent understand their part. In Aon’s Benefits and Trends 2022 Survey, 95 percent of employers responding agreed they have a responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their employees – the highest this figure has ever been in the Survey’s 12-year history. There is an underlying acknowledgement of the impact that low levels of wellbeing and resilience will have on many important aspects of business performance.
In many cases, employers are stepping up. When asked which health and wellbeing initiatives were offered as part of their benefits strategy, 73 percent said they provided a communications campaign around wellbeing, 69 percent said they offered mental health awareness training and 63 percent said they offered mental health first aid training. In addition, 56 percent offered a mental health app, 54 percent offered line manager mental health training, 53 percent made use of wellbeing champions and 48 percent offered stress and resilience training.
However, another clear message from Aon’s Benefits and Trends survey is that despite an upwards shift in employers feeling responsible for employee health and wellbeing as well as an uptick in tactical actions, the number of employers who have a formal strategy in place hasn’t shifted, remaining at 44 percent since last year.
This dial is not shifting which means there is some way to go to create impactful change, not least starting with buy-in from the C-Suite. Indeed, most employers surveyed also admitted they do not currently measure ROI on their existing health and wellbeing strategies – just 8 percent do – meaning they won’t be able to understand outcomes and long-term success. Seventy percent also do not have a specific budget for wellbeing, potentially because they aren’t able to show impacts of their actions.
Among the employers who have formalised a wellbeing strategy, however, almost all – 87% – use health data analytics to gather insights to help inform their strategies. This is encouraging and will help these employers understand organisational gaps and needs. Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) utilisation, employee engagement surveys, absence data and occupational health (OH) data, as well as medical, income protection, life and critical illness data are all used for insights.
Understandably, there has been less time and resource for employers to take strategic action over the last two years, but it is this that will help create focus to achieve demonstrable results and help build a resilient workforce.
Of course, all of this comes at a time when NHS mental health availability is stretched to its limits, so the need for employers to step in and provide strategic health and wellbeing solutions has never been greater.
Official NHS figures show that around 1.6 million people are currently on waiting lists for mental health treatment, while an estimated eight million who need treatment are stuck in a so-called ‘treatment gap’ whereby they do not meet treatment criteria due to unprecedented demand for NHS mental health services.
Taking strategic action
Firefighting the wellbeing issue – which is what many employers had to do during the pandemic to help their people – is not sustainable. Wellbeing is also not an issue a business can spend its way out of. In short, there is no quick fix, but employers that commit to considering and planning well can implement a wellbeing programme that will help deliver maximum impact.
For a sustainable, long-term solution to employee health and wellbeing, it’s fundamentally important to audit existing needs, issues, policies and service gaps. Listening to employees is also essential, as is carrying out a stress-related risk assessment to highlight areas in work and culture that may be potential stressors.
Benchmarking plans can ensure value for money, as well as checking that most relevant elements are offered. As Aon’s Rising Resilient report points out, it can include providing mental health first aiders, for instance, or ensuring health insurances have pay-out parity between physical and mental health.
It cannot be overstated that health data analytics are the game-changer for wellbeing. There is a wealth of data within reach internally – from EAPs, employee surveys to critical illness instances – which when considered carefully, can ensure actions, budget and good intentions are aligned to support employees and the business.
In essence, understanding the data supports better decision making, justifies investment and provides ongoing feedback on strategy performance. It provides a quantifiable means which HR can take to the board, providing both initial metrics and ultimately an understanding of impacts and ROI.
About the author
Charles Alberts is Head of Wellbeing Solutions in the UK, leading a team of experts who advise employers on people health risk. During his 20-year career he has worked with many diverse organisations to help them achieve their employee wellbeing aspirations. Drawing on his lived experience of mental health issues, Charles is a strong advocate for the role the workplace can play to protect and enhance mental health. He is a qualified Mental Health First Aider and holds an MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing. Charles represents Aon at the Manchester Business School National Forum for Health and Wellbeing at Work and serves on the Board of the mental health charity Dorset Mind.