· Features

Affordable action: Mental health initiatives that won't break the bank

Rather than just paying lip service to tackling workers’ mental health problems, employers must take action. But how can they do so affordably?

Fine words butter no parsnips, as the old saying goes. Although wellbeing issues have rightly risen up the corporate agenda in recent years, many organisations are yet to implement worthwhile interventions supporting employee mental health.

Turning words into action on workforce mental health is often a challenge. It’s easy to get bogged down at the initial awareness-raising stage. After all, every organisation has tough decisions to make on budget allocation. Uncertainty over how to deliver a positive impact that offers value for money can put a block on investment.

How, then, should organisations set about embedding mental health support? And what steps should be taken to ensure practicality and cost-effectiveness?

Employee Assistance Programmes

Employee Assistance Programme (EAPs) have been available in the UK market since the 1980s but have become more prevalent in recent years. Growth in uptake over the past decade is roughly 300%. As one of the most common wellbeing interventions in the UK, EAPs often form the bedrock on which mental health support is built.

EAPs are generally provided by external specialists and offer 24-hour support online and via telephone, backed up with face-to-face counselling where required. As the service is outsourced, it is also financially within reach for SMEs.

When selecting an EAP, it is important to pick a service designed for today’s working environment but that also has an eye to the future. Online and app access are of growing importance as landline use plummets.

The cost of an EAP is calculated on the total headcount of the employer for the year. EAP providers association EAPA says a large employer can expect to pay around £6 per employee per year, while a business with under 100 members of staff is likely to be charged around £12 per employee per year. Sarah Barnes, HR director at Bauer Media, says her company’s EAP costs just £4.41 per head annually.

Look for a service that encompasses a helpline to support line managers dealing with their team. This resource can, for example, be used to coach a manager ahead of a difficult conversation, or to support an absent employee returning to work.

The EAPA website provides a list of registered providers, consultants, a buyers’ guide and some useful research materials. It also features an online tool that employers can use to calculate expected ROI.

University of Glasgow has an EAP which offers online advice, telephone counselling and face-to-face counselling in certain circumstances. “Generally speaking, the EAP works well – people who use it are very positive about it,” says COO David Duncan, who is also the university’s Mental Health Champion. “The main challenge is encouraging staff to access it. Especially men, who are traditionally resistant to seeking help with mental health issues.

“More broadly, we are working on encouraging staff to think about and take responsibility for their own wellbeing through the development of a wellbeing framework or
strategy [and] awareness-raising of mental health issues, to reduce the stigma around talking about mental health issues.”

Sarah Winship, diversity, inclusion and wellbeing manager at law firm Shoosmiths, believes some organisations go wrong by including information about EAPs in job adverts “as a benefit”, reiterating this at induction, then seldom talking about them again, meaning they drop off the radar for employees.“If staff aren’t using your EAP, it is a very expensive addition to your benefits package,” she advises.

To avoid this, Shoosmiths makes information on its mental health and wellbeing offering available as part of a wide variety of HR processes, such as return to work from a period of absence, through to disciplinary or grievance processes. Moreover, a network of Mental Health and Wellbeing Champions “actively promote the EAP at a local level”, both signposting it to individuals and raising awareness through more general communications.

Meanwhile, PwC wellbeing leader Sally Evans recommends taking a case study approach as part of a strategy to build awareness and achieve good ROI. “Showcase stories of people from within the business who are happy to talk about [their] good experiences engaging with the service,” she says. “This is also a chance to highlight the range of issues where help can be provided.”

Mental health first aid

Mental health first aid (MHFA) training courses are designed to teach people how to identify, understand and help a colleague who may be experiencing a mental health issue. By learning to recognise the warning signs of mental ill-health, participants may be able to nip a potential crisis in the bud by providing reassurance to the person affected and guiding them to appropriate support.

As these courses offer a means of embedding early intervention into an organisation, they are an appealing proposition for many employers. University of Glasgow, for example, has put around 200 of its staff through MHFA training.

The outlay is far from unreasonable. At the time of writing, first-aid charity St John Ambulance is offering two-day MHFA courses at £300 per person. One- and half-day courses are also available at £200 and £125 respectively.

Bauer Media believes investing in mental health first aiders is essential in creating an open culture on mental health. Evidence, says Barnes, shows this openness not only reduces stigma but lowers absenteeism too.

“Appointing mental health first aiders from across the business and not limiting these positions to HR people has proven to be highly successful already in encouraging a culture of inclusivity,” says Barnes. “We have trained over 20 people to be qualified mentaln health first aiders and we aim to have someone in each of our locations by the end of 2019.”


Similarly to training staff to become mental health first aiders, some organisations may want to create designated coaches to support their employee base. At PwC, the focus is on career coaching – a crucial aspect of staff wellbeing.

“All PwC employees have ‘career coaches’ who are responsible for their coaching, performance management, and wellbeing,” reports Evans. “People who have a career coaching role need to have the right information and guidance to be able to have effective wellbeing conversations.”

Investing in training for these people is key, Evans adds: “Training to give our people the skills and confidence to have these conversations is important. We need to make sure coaches understand that they are not counsellors, and make it clear where their responsibility begins and ends – i.e. when they should signpost and refer their coachee to external help where required.”

Advice hotlines and external resources

You should signpost employees effectively to external sources of support (such as hotlines). Be broad in your thinking and inclusive in whom you reach out to.

“For example,” says PwC’s Evans, “target support for harder-to-reach groups, and signpost the specialist charities and agencies that can support these groups – e.g. men, younger people, employees from a minority background, people experiencing domestic/sexual abuse.”

Also make use of readily available resources such as Mind’s ‘Mental Health at Work’ gateway and CIPD’s People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health for further free practical advice.

Understand how services are being used

This is fundamental in making sure you target resources effectively and offer the best support. “If everyone is using an on-site counsellor at a particular time of year, or you have an increase in requests for coaching from a particular area, what does that information tell you?” says Winship. “Are there structural or process issues? Or is a lot of support being requested from an area where management style could be an issue?”

Findings can be used to make improvements or plan future initiatives and interventions. Especially when viewed with other information gathered from staff surveys, turnover data, sickness absence information, and so on.

Starting the conversation

Though it can’t be about awareness-raising only, none of the above will work without starting the conversation in the first place, however. Environment Agency mental health champion Andy Croxford says: “The most effective thing staff and managers can do in the workplace is start a conversation on mental health. Once you get people talking about mental health, the culture starts to change, particularly if senior leaders are also talking about mental health.”

He adds: “Campaigns such as Time to Talk Day are a good catalyst, but it is then down to each team or organisation to keep the conversation going. Other support mechanisms such as coaching come out of these conversations once you know what is important to your employees.”

Shoosmiths’ Winship agrees. As mental health can still be perceived as a taboo subject, initiatives need support throughout the organisation, starting at the very top.

“If mental health is seen as something that can’t be talked about, people are unlikely to seek the support offered,” says Winship. “We developed our network of Mental Health and Wellbeing Champions to raise awareness, start conversations and remove the stigma attached to it.

“We have also made sure there are key messages coming from the CEO and chairman about the importance of the issue. Both the CEO and the chairman signed the Time to Change pledge, and pictures of them doing so, along with a message from them, were circulated to every office.”

This piece featured in our Beyond awareness: taking action on employee mental health ebook in partnership with Perkbox. Read the full supplement, including extra box-outs, here