When addressing mental health-based presenteeism, the good news is that there is much employers can be doing to offer practical support and help to stressed or anxious workers struggling into work, as Paul Avis outlines. The bad news is it might be a sign a deeper cultural reflection is needed to tackle why your workers have felt so over-burdened in the first place.
Mental health is an issue firmly established on everyone’s agenda in 2019. Chancellor Philip Hammond unveiled a £2 billion boost to make sure every school and hospital unit will have a mental health unit in last October’s Budget. Mind, the mental health charity, receives support from both Prince William and Prince Harry.
None of this should come as a surprise – mental illness affects one in four people in the UK every year, having an impact on their physical health, close relationships, financial resilience and work life. This puts mental health on par with musculoskeletal neck and back pain, becoming an issue so entrenched in society that it cannot be ignored any longer.
About the author
Paul Avis is marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance
And yet, it is in our working lives where we stay silent most often about mental health. More than a fifth of UK employees went into work feeling mentally ill in 2017, with the perception that it wouldn’t be acceptable to take time off for a persistent mental illness.
As such, presenteeism remains one of the biggest problems that employers are facing when looking to address their employees’ wellbeing, their productivity and overall office culture this year.
Working while ill means hours are spent doing poor quality work, driving productivity down. It’s also self-perpetuating, particularly in more serious cases. Instead of seeking appropriate help and support, focusing on recovering and returning to work ready to contribute in a meaningful fashion, the employee attempts to carry on working. They do not seek the treatment they need, which can worsen their condition.
Ultimately, the employee will reach breaking point and either leave the organisation – which leads to high staff turnover and recruitment costs – or go on long-term sickness absence. This is a no less costly option. Statutory Sick Pay must be paid for up to 28 weeks, with many companies then offering further occupational sick pay. Further obligations to comply with the Equality Act 2010 await employers, who will need to proactively deal with employee absence, with an eye to retaining the employee.
Mental health presenteeism is evidently an expensive issue for employers, so how can they address it head-on?
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Tackling mental health presenteeism head-on
Presenteeism can become a vicious cycle. The drive to remain in the office can cause illness to spread or lead to a longer recovery time. Our research shows that one of the main reasons why people come into work when ill is that their workload was too great for them to justify taking a day off, an issue they felt could be addressed in a number of ways.
Preventative measures remain the best solution to address presenteeism. Employees need to feel supported before they feel their health deteriorating. Flexible working hours are a popular choice from employees and a relatively easy solution for many employers to put in place.
The statutory right to request the ability to work flexibly has already been granted to those continuously employed with the same employer for 26 weeks, but the onus is still on the employer to make sure employees have their rights clearly communicated to them.
The same applies to support services, such as an early intervention service. A part of most group risk offers, an early intervention service engages with employers and their employees in the early stages of an absence. Its aim is to manage employee absence effectively and find the best possible outcome for all involved, which in many cases is a speedy return to work.
Preventative measures such as flexible working and support services can do wonders to soften the strain on employees when they feel they need to take sick leave because of a mental illness.
Addressing mental health presenteeism in the long term
To address the issue of presenteeism around mental health in the long term, extra steps are needed. The first step is to assess employees’ views on mental health in your organisation. An anonymous survey, for example, will help measure whether your staff feel it is dealt with positively or poorly. This should then lay the foundations to tackle the problem head on.
You may want to consider setting up an action group of employees interested in changing practices around mental health or developing an internal campaign to promote and reinforce the importance of mental health.
If you don’t already have one, be sure to develop a mental health policy, ideally in consultation with employee advocates who have suffered or are suffering from mental ill health. This must be communicated to staff properly to ensure they feel comfortable coming forward with any issues in confidence.
Reviewing existing resources is a cost and time-effective way of providing practical support. employee assistance programmes (EAPs) offer confidential counselling and instant access to advice and support for mental health concerns and are provided for free alongside most group income protection policies. These policies may also offer day one support where a complex absence, such as stress or depression, is reported.
If discussing mental health in the mainstream media encourages more people to seek help, I’m all for it, but help needs to be accessible and easy to find. Employers have a duty to provide proper support and guidance to ensure their people’s mental wellbeing needs are being met.
Tackling mental ill health with prevention and intervention, Association of British Insurers event, November 2017, Association of British Insurers, November 2018
10 facts that sum up our nation’s health in 2017, Public Health Matters blog, Public Health England, July 2017, https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2017/07/13/10-facts-that-sum-up-our-nations-health-in-2017/
Canada Life Group research, October 2018
Flexible working, https://www.gov.uk/flexible-working/applying-for-flexible-working