Mental Health and Wellbeing - A Structured Approach

Posted in : HR Updates on 3 June 2021
Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered: Mental Health and Wellbeing; Sickness and Absence

MORE than £18 million was spent on anti-depressants in Northern Ireland last year, a £7 million increase on the previous year. Whilst health officials said price increases among some of the most commonly used anti-depressant drugs had led to a "significant impact" on costs, there is no doubt that poor mental health is increasing.

The amount spent on such medication, which can be used to treat a range of conditions, including depression and anxiety, had increased year on year in Northern Ireland since 2017 when over £10 million was spent.

The Royal College of GPs has said the Covid-19 pandemic had caused a "tsunami of mental health issues which GPs are witnessing and managing in communities across Northern Ireland… Unfortunately, prescribing medication is only part of the solution when managing mental health needs".

Mental Health ill-health affects more than 20% of the NI population, and it is not unreasonable to conclude a significant proportion of these people are employees.

BITC's annual health survey in conjunction with BUPA reveals that 41% of employees have experienced mental health symptoms caused or worsened by work this year.  Some good news is that the survey suggests that colleagues are considerate of their mental wellbeing and that a further 69% believe the same of their manager. In addition, 56% of employees now feel comfortable talking about stress in the workplace.

But what can we do to help our employees continue to contribute to our organisations' successes?

In the UK, we have always had the bedrock of the NHS/HSC to help our people when they became ill, but it is facing some of the most significant challenges it has ever faced in dealing with waiting lists. It was recently reported that over 4000 people are waiting for an appointment with adult mental health services. It is also widely recognised that Adult Mental health services has been a Cinderella service in the NHS/HSC and needs massive investment. So, looking to the NHS/HSC will unfortunately not be a quick solution for your employees who find themselves struggling. So how can employers respond in a structured and long-term way?

Prevention is always better than the cure and the standards set out in Mental Health at Work Commitment are an excellent place to start. Success in dealing with work-related mental health issues will be dependent on a structured approach that has the support of the most senior people in the organisation.  The standards recommended in the commitment include:

1. Prioritise mental health in the workplace by developing and delivering a systematic programme of activity. Such an approach requires senior management buy-in, routine monitoring of wellbeing and above all, a plan to deal with the identified issues within the workplace.

2. Proactively ensure work design and organisational culture drive positive mental health outcomes. This ranges from having excellent physical workplaces and engaging with the workforce about job design and work-life balance. There is a significant challenge in creating these safe workplaces for those sectors which will embrace new hybrid working arrangements which combine home and office-based working.

3. Promote an open culture around mental health by increasing awareness and challenging the stigma of mental ill-health, empowering employee advocates/champions and role models in addressing the causes of unnecessary stress.

4. Increase organisation confidence and capability by improving mental health literacy

This can be achieved not least by training managers in some aspects of workplace mental health. It would be essential to ensure that the organisational expectations of these managers are managed. They cannot become trained counsellors or psychologists but are in many ways first aiders who can signposts people to the best support available through either the company or other health care providers.

5 Provide mental health tools and support - ensure everyone has an awareness of the resources available, including self-help, peer or digital and, if necessary clinical care. Employers should also think creatively. Some of the stressors for employees may be financial, and it would be helpful for them t to be directed to appropriate support. A risk assessment process such as recommended in the LRA documents is beneficial both from an organisational and individual perspective.

6. Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting - most organisations keep a close eye on the absence records, and many also reflect on the causes of absence. An in-depth analysis of the available data within an organisation can help identify hotspots of stress, whether it be because of the nature of the work or potentially the impact of negative cultures within some departments. Where hotspots are identified, then there is an obligation to understand further why this is so.

I can think of some managers who will see this work as being the responsibility of the HR department or occupational health provider, and senior management within the organisation must place a proportionate responsibility on managers to actively create and shape an environment where mental health is positively addressed by those closest to the risk. This will, in my experience, mean a lot of managers will need support and training to ensure that their focus is not solely on delivery and/or profitability. HR specialists know all too well the connection between productivity and happy and contented workers, and perhaps now is the time to start shaping our HR policies to enhance further our approaches to ensuring success through the creation of healthy, positive and purposeful workplaces which do not add to the stresses of modern-day life.

We have created, by and large, relatively physically safe workplaces, and much is being done to create safer workplaces regarding our mental health. Still, the impact of the last year brings greater focus to the challenges we face as many of us move to a new era of hybrid working. This will also mean that we need to ensure the home base in the hybrid arrangements is at least as safe as our workplaces.


This article is correct at 03/06/2021

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Hugh McPoland
Clarendon Executive

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