· 2 min read · Features

How should HR deal with employee mental health in the economic downturn?

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The past year has seen the most difficult economic climate for decades - indeed for many people it will have been the worst they have encountered in their working life. And HR professionals are facing new challenges with the knock-on effects. So, how should HR respond to protect its employees and organisation?

Employers are economising and managers have to do more with less - meaning they are asking more of their staff. This increased workload may also be a result of layoffs, and the remaining employees feel pressured and perhaps even a bit guilty that they kept their job while some of their workmates did not. A poor economy creates a general sense of malaise in the general population, and unless employers are careful to create their own sense of well-being in the workplace, this malaise can permeate the day-to-day work atmosphere in even the most robust organisation.

Employees will find ways out of this kind of pressure either by letting off steam after work, seeking counselling, taking time off, disengaging from their work, or even leaving. In a poor economy, Unum has found employees are more likely to hang on to their jobs and try to keep working even if they are sick and need the time off. Although at first glance this might seem a positive outcome for the company, it is not. Performance frequently suffers and the long-term consequences can be very bad. Although employees can for a while ‘run on empty', this may not be sustainable and can lead to more difficult absences in the future if the employee finally ‘hits the wall'.

If HR managers do nothing, they could be creating a time bomb for the future.

Prevention is key, and the first thing is to make sure the company has suitable services in place to support employees at risk and thereby reduce the likelihood of long-term sickness absence. In this context, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) can be invaluable, as it can help the employee manage and cope productively with the circumstances in which they find themselves. EAP plans should not just provide one-to-one counselling (although this is of course important), they should also offer both employer and employee support and information that is easy to access before there is a crisis. Self-help resources are a great example of this.

Other options? Make good use of your long-term income protection provider. Your provider will be very keen to help you prevent long-term absences through intelligent use of short-term sickness absence to help people back to work as and when they are able to, and typically on a graduated basis.

And lastly, communication - telling your employees about such services, in a positive context, and encouraging them to seek help rather than simply toughing it out, can make an incredible difference, both to the positive atmosphere at the workplace and, most importantly, to the company's performance.

Joy Reymond is head of rehabilitation at Unum