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Family breakdown poses hidden risk for HR

Family breakdowns can cause stress, depression, and even lead to suicide

Mental Health Awareness Week (MHWA) marks a chance to further reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and showcase best practice both inside and outside the workplace.

Responding effectively and sensitively to mental ill health continues to pose a serious challenge for workplace wellbeing. This is an extension of societal attitudes and responses that frame our collective understanding of common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

What makes us depressed or anxious? The answer – at least in general terms – is the trials of life. Or as the organisers of this year’s MHAW put it: “Emotionally our heads are only just above water. Holding onto our jobs, managing our family life, paying our bills sometimes threaten to overwhelm us."

This cuts to the heart of early stage intervention such that the offer of support is fit for purpose, easily accessible and - above all - compelling for those employees at risk.

But what does ‘at risk' mean? And how should an offer of support be positioned so that it might overcome taboo and reticence on the part of employee and employer alike? The take up of line manager mental health awareness is solid evidence of progress. As are workplace initiatives confronting suicide and domestic abuse.

Which is why it’s all the more surprising that one of the biggest stressors of everyday life – second only to bereavement in terms of its impact on mental health – remains side-lined. Divorce and separation is typically seen as off limits by HR and wellbeing professionals despite longitudinal research showing that up to half of people separating could be at risk of clinical depression. Given that more than two-thirds of a workforce is likely to be in a couple and that around half of all marriages fail, relationship breakdown should be a key item of any wellbeing risk register.

Simply put, helping to prevent an episode of poor mental health among employees is about recognising the most common triggers and reverse engineering early stage intervention capable of displacing reluctance in favour of encouragement.

It means thinking beyond traditional off-the-shelf health and wellbeing provision that many employees do not engage with or relate to. A real challenge therein is how to reach men, since data bears out they are more at risk than women of suicide, especially at a time of separation.

Workplace-based gateways into employee support therefore need to be many and varied. They need to understand and accommodate the psychology of employees bringing personal stressors to work. They need to borrow upon the lessons of our increasingly frictionless and digital world that nudges us all towards purchasing decisions each day. And they need to deploy compelling and appropriate language that’s proven to resonate with target demographics.

But above all, early stage intervention and follow-on support could benefit from some data mining basics: measurement, management reporting and anonymised feedback that drills down to the reasons for absenteeism and presenteeism. HR leaders pride themselves on being able to intervene fast to better manage risk. Workplace wellbeing should be no exception.

Jayne Carrington is the former managing director of EAP Right Corecare and a director of Dialogue First, a social enterprise specialising in supporting employees and their families at a time of separation