A growing number of Britain’s biggest companies now include details of their employee health and wellbeing activities in annual reports, but very few extend this reporting to the services they provide to support employees’ mental health.
The level and quality of employers’ public reporting on mental health is “worryingly low”, according to corporate responsibility employers’ body Business in the Community (BITC), prompting the leadership of its Workwell campaign to focus on mental health this year.
A culture of silence exists in Britain’s workplaces around mental health. This silence operates at the individual level, with many employees still reluctant to disclose a mental health problem at work, but also at organisational level. Just over 40% of employees surveyed by the CIPD in 2013 said their employer does not promote health and wellbeing and the latest data from a BITC benchmarking series suggests that this organisational reluctance to talk about mental health in the workplace extends to what employers are prepared to include in their annual reports on the issue.
Little public reporting on mental health at work
The BITC Workwell public reporting benchmark started in 2007, tracking the public reporting of employee engagement and wellbeing among FTSE 100 companies. The latest data published in May 2014 shows that, while growing numbers of large private-sector companies are becoming more publicly open about what they say on wellbeing generally, mental health remains a stumbling block.
Stephen Howard, BITC chief executive, is encouraged by the broad picture on the public reporting of health matters. However, he says that “the lack of reporting on mental health emphasises the culture of silence around this issue”.
The exercise to benchmark public reporting tracks FTSE 100 companies against five areas in a BITC Workwell model: better work, better relationships, better specialist support, better physical and psychological health, and working well. The 2014 data finds that public reporting in most areas improved; 86% of FTSE 100 companies now report on four out of the five areas in the model, although not often in any great depth. However, on the fifth, specialist support, reporting was “worryingly low”, the BITC campaign suggests, with only 11% of Britain’s top companies talking about the support they provide to employees with mental health issues in their annual reports.
Although some companies mention provision of employee health, very few go into detail. For example, 59 out of 100 organisations offer occupational health (OH) provision but only five give any detailed narrative and/or metrics on its effectiveness. None of the FTSE 100 firms report any metrics around employee assistance programme (EAP) use, despite the fact that many provide employees with access to this type of support. This absence of published data raises questions around whether or not large employers receive any management information from their EAP provider, or, where they do, what use they make of it.
Aims of BITC’s Workwell campaign
The core purpose of the BITC Workwell initiative is to create happier and healthier workplaces, building resilience for the business “but also for the community”, according to Louise Aston, Workwell’s director.
In the summer, the 18-strong leadership team behind Workwell decided to develop a special focus on mental health, partly because of the business case for investing in psychological health, but also as a way of addressing an area of potential unfairness at work.
Aston argues: “People with mental ill health often suffer in silence at work out of a fear of disclosing a problem. This culture of silence is holding back the normalisation of common mental health issues; organisations cannot manage what they cannot talk about.”
A champions group was formed in spring 2014 to develop this new Workwell focus and all organisations in the group committed to sign the mental health charity Mind’s “Time to Change” employer pledge. “Some are further on the journey towards signing than others, but this doesn’t matter so long as all are committed,” says Aston.
The mental health champions group has 14 members, with M&S and Zurich joining most recently, and includes some individuals from an OH background.
Aston argues there is a disconnect, even in large organisations, between the clear business case for investing in mental health and knowing where to start on the process of ending the culture of silence. “Mental health is a lot more complicated than physical health, but the two are inextricably linked. The Workwell model provides solutions that fit the organisation, depending on where they are on the journey, by setting out a range of primary, secondary and tertiary interventions,” she says.
The champions group is currently developing a route map to sit alongside the Workwell model, providing ways of looking at what interventions will work within different organisations.
A subgroup is developing a suite of action resources, “by business, for business”, using a peer-to-peer approach, “which is how BITC does everything”, Aston explains. The aim is to get mental health issues onto the board agenda on parity with physical health – an issue flagged up in the 2014 annual report on mental health priorities by the UK’s chief medical officer.
By next spring, BITC will have launched a new core membership offering (costing around £3,000), providing a relatively low-cost way for all businesses to access the new resources. The champions group is also developing an executive committee guide setting out the business case for supporting good mental health and how to embed this in the organisation’s culture.
Friends Life: a champion of mental health support for workers
Insurance and pensions provider, Friends Life is a founder member of the BITC champions group. “It made absolute perfect sense for us to get involved,” says Roger Cotton, corporate responsibility manager at the organisation. “As a life assurance company, we sell income protection policies, and claims involving mental ill health form a significant proportion of the total made against this type of insurance,” he says.
Taking an active part in the mental health champions group also fits with the company’s diversity agenda: “Friends Life set up a diversity forum in May 2013 and one of two current priorities is to focus on removing unconscious bias around mental health in the organisation”, Cotton adds.
Heads in the sand
How can OH and other functions within organisations do their bit to break down the culture of silence at the highest level in the organisation, particularly if that organisation has already done the basics, for example, drawing up and launching a mental health policy or framework?
Workplace mental health should be a board-level issue, given the well-established business case, Cotton argues. A recent BITC report, published in collaboration with knowledge partners including The Work Foundation and the CIPD, restates the economic arguments for investing in employee psychological health; the estimated cost to employers of mental ill health at work is £26 billion a year, or £1,035 per employee.
“To some extent, heads are being buried in the sand at board level,” says Cotton. Too many senior leadership teams still do not receive breakdowns of absence by cause, meaning the significance of mental health-related absence remains hidden. “The minute you start putting this level of information into board reports, people start taking notice,” he adds. The old maxim of “what gets measured gets managed” needs extending to “what gets publicly reported will get managed better”.
There are signs that the public reporting of workplace mental health is edging up the agenda – Friends Life’s latest CSR report, published this summer, reports on absence by cause including mental health and also provides figures on EAP usage – but “we need to keep banging the drum”, Cotton says.
Reluctance to discuss mental health?
Why are companies so reluctant to talk about this particular aspect of people management? “It’s a question of transparency and accountability; organisations like BITC must keep pushing organisations to report on mental health in the same way as they are increasingly doing on physical health,” Aston says.
She suggests part of the reluctance is down to worries that the published information might be used against them, damaging corporate reputations: “But the opposite is the case; reporting shows that the organisation recognises mental health as a significant issue. Describing the initiatives used to support people demonstrates the organisation is serious about building employee resilience.”
Employers disclosing figures on EAP usage are not demonstrating weakness. Aston says: “High EAP utilisation can be a positive form of reporting, particularly if employees are using the service in a preventative way. Increasing the quality of the narrative in annual reports around mental health provides a positive picture of the organisation’s approach, boosting brand reputation. This is a massive opportunity for organisations to go on the front foot, demonstrating to investors that they walk the talk on ‘our people are our greatest asset’.”
Cotton agrees there can be anxiety over blame at the senior level in many organisations. “Too many business leaders do not want to talk about mental ill health in their organisation in case it opens the floodgates to tribunals.” He argues that boards need reassuring that this is not a huge risk, and that it is not helpful to focus on the cause of any problem, or on the attribution of “blame”, as this prevents openness. “Championing the issue at a senior level is critical,” he adds.
Friends Life hosted a joint breakfast forum with BITC in October 2014, exploring the role of the boardroom in mental health at work. Each boardroom should nominate a mental health champion, BITC argues. “At Friends Life, our chief risk officer also champions mental health issues at a senior level,” says Cotton.
CIPD. Employee Outlook, 2013.
BITC. “FTSE 100 public reporting: employee engagement and wellbeing”. May 2014.
BITC. “Mental health: we’re ready to talk”. May 2014.
Annual report of the chief medical officer. “Public mental health priorities: investing in the evidence”. 2013.