The findings are based on a business summit hosted by AXA and Mind earlier this year that brought together senior figures from 16 organisations to discuss the challenges faced by employers in addressing mental distress in the workplace. According to the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey one in six workers is experiencing depression, anxiety or stress costing British businesses an estimated £26 billion a year but despite this mental health is still not given the same priority as physical health at work. But earlier this year, Business in the Community reported only 15% of FTSE 100 companies report on the proactive management of psychological health compared to 97%reporting on physical health. The summit revealed a number of common concerns.
It concluded boardroom buy in to the importance of mental health issues is currently lacking, and is crucial if businesses are to drive real change.
Delegates agreed Government proposals to remove tax exemption for Employee Assistance Programmes could discourage employers from offering EAP services to staff, fit notes rarely include practical recommendations from GPs and often the adjustments suggested are not appropriate for employees' particular workplace and only 1% of the Access to Work budget currently assists people with mental health problems even though this is one of the biggest reasons why people are off sick.
Employers discussed the issue that there is insufficient provision of sustainable, accessible occupational health advice for small and medium sized employers and agreed good line management is essential in spotting signs of mental distress and acting early, but training for managers seldom provides the soft skills needed to sensitively handle mental health issues.
Stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health issues means that employees can be reluctant to disclose and employers only become aware when someone needs sickness absence
A strong theme was that many employers still take a tick box approach to wellbeing, providing 'lettuce leaves and gym membership' rather than embedding policies specifically designed to target stress and mental health issues, and promote mental wellbeing.
These comments reflect recent government findings that most initiatives marked up as 'wellbeing' interventions are actually health and safety or injury prevention training, with only 17% of organisations providing stress management support. Based on common frustrations and best practice, the summit led to a set of recommendations on the actions that businesses and government should take to create mentally healthy workplaces, including:
- Large employers should prioritise mental health as a boardroom issue, on par with physical health. This includes monitoring staff mental wellbeing and reporting back to the board
- Employers should create an open, supportive workplace and facilitate disclosure, so that problems can be addressed before they escalate Employers should introduce Employee Assistance Programmes - SMEs can explore pooling resources locally to share the costs
- Government should retain the tax-exempt status of EAPs as welfare counselling and explore other financial incentives to encourage employers to prioritise mental health at work
- Government should explore how to improve GPs' use of Fit notes, e.g. by increasing compulsory occupational health training for GPs and medical student.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind said: "Just about every business manages to incorporate physical health and safety into their working practices, yet despite the fact that mental health is the second biggest health problem in the workforce, only a handful of organisations specifically promote and protect good mental health. "Bringing together some of the best known businesses to discuss what is holding us back revealed that some of the barriers are really simple to overcome - problems such as poor awareness and poor training on stress management and mental health, which can be resolved with very little investment indeed.
"Crucially, there needs to be the will from right at the top of an organisation to start giving mental wellbeing the priority it deserves. Signalling from the top that mental health is valued, promoting openness and ensuring line managers are trained in soft skills can help employers to act early and nip problems in the bud - saving money and creating a happier, more productive workforce."