How to support employees suffering mental health issues


Employees are the lifeblood of any operation – and that makes supporting them a top priority – but are businesses equipped to help those with mental health issues? It helps to have the right benefit scheme.

Three in five employees have experienced mental health issues as a result of work in the past year, the 2017 Mental Health at Work report from UK charity Business in the Community has revealed.However, due to a “pervasive culture of silence” many businesses do not understand the breadth of the problem.

According to the report, in 2017 60% of employees attributed their symptoms of poor mental health to work, while just 13% felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their line manager. The knock-on effect is that many businesses have not made full use of their employee benefit service, which often includes Employee Assistance Programmes, specifically designed to help employees overcome their personal problems. Perhaps they are right to be concerned: the report found that 15% of employees who experienced symptoms of poor mental health and disclosed their mental health issue to a line manager faced disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

Unfortunately for those businesses, these individuals would have the potential to be happier, healthier and more productive if their employer properly understood their own employee benefit schemes.

“When you’re paying for employee benefits, such as group life assurance, group income protection, and private medical insurance, many businesses are unaware they also get Employee Assistance Programmes, which are designed to help staff overcome problems that might affect work or wellbeing,” says Beth Husted, Unum’s Rehabilitation and Wellbeing Manager.

“Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can include assessments, short-term counselling and referral services for employees and their immediate family, looking at issues like debt, stress and relationship problems. While research suggests employees find EAPs useful, they are often overlooked by businesses.”

The culture of silence surrounding mental health at work may be the reason why businesses do not implement their Employee Assistance Programmes – but they do so to their own detriment.

Tackling stigma with Employee Assistance Programmes

The first step toward tackling mental health stigma is to make employees aware of support services available. In 2015 British retailer Marks & Spencer promoted its Employee Assistance Programme to encourage communication around mental health. Through training, awareness-raising and the adoption of better working practices, M&S equipped HR and managers with the tools to tackle mental health with confidence. Small and medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) looking to improve their approach to dealing with mental health issues at work would do well to take a cue from Marks & Spencer’s approach – even without the enormous resources of the retail giant.

For smaller businesses, understanding what services employees might need can be a vital lifeline. Employers should find out the issues causing distress, and provide practical support around them. That could mean offering up-to-date, informed advice on possible childcare providers, or face-to-face counselling sessions. Money worries can be a common source of anxiety and stress so there may be a need for some financial advice. All of these support lines could be packaged within a company’s EAP.

Why is it so critical to combat stigma? Because an employee’s mental health can greatly affect their performance as well as the company’s bottom line. But, more importantly, because business leaders have a moral obligation to look after the people who make their firms a success. While businesses should take steps to remove the stigma around mental health issues in the workplace, Employee Assistance Programmes are confidential, meaning workers can discuss sensitive issues without fear of a black mark on their career.

The silent generation

Personal problems become personnel problems, and that is particularly true of older generations, who are less likely to talk about their problems. Unum research revealed that mental health disorders are the second most common reason for Unum Group Income Protection (GIP) claims, behind only cancer.

And, it’s a particular issue for older people. “Age UK, the UK’s largest charity working with older people, recently found that half adults aged 55 and more say they have experienced depression or anxiety, but also that they are more likely to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’ than talk about their problems,” says Beth Husted.

“Employers that recognise the value of Employee Assistance Programmes must also take steps to encourage their older workers into talk about their problems. They need to know that there is help out there for older people too.”

And those companies that already have an EAP in place must work on how it is communicated. A simple email won’t suffice – ensure the programme is well represented in all internal communications: posters on noticeboards, discussions at team meetings and one-to-one appraisals, information on intranet. Most EAP providers will provide a range of visuals that can help ensure this communication doesn’t slip through the net. And if you don’t have an EAP within your organisation, they can be purchased on a standalone basis for a relatively low cost – especially in comparison to the positive impact it can have on employees and productivity.

Between 2016 and 2017, 31.2 million working days were lost due to self-reported, work-related illness or injury. Stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the majority of days lost due to work-related ill health, 12.5 and 8.9 million days, respectively.

Employee benefit schemes, particularly Employee Assistance Programmes, are designed to both improve the wellbeing of workers and help them remain productive, happy members of the workforce.

We hope there will come a time when mental health support will no longer be an employee benefit but a fundamental right. There’s no harm in getting ahead of the curve, or simply making employees aware of the existing service.


Disclaimer: The article is produced in collaboration with Unum, one of Elect’s insurance providers. Unum offer employee benefits, such as group life assurance, group income protection, and private medical insurance, which often include Employee Assistance Programmes. Mercer is a sponsor of the Mental Health at Work Report with Business in the Community.