18 April 2021

Andrew Drake, client development director, and Amanda Cran, healthcare proposition leader, at Buck, outline how reforms should be a springboard for employers

The government’s recent announcement (https://bit.ly/3fVsgmd) outlining major reform to the Mental Health Act was much needed, with some of the previous legislation dating back as far as 1983. These reforms mark a shift in government policy to match society’s changing perception of mental health and the importance people now put on having good mental health. And with the government making changes to its mental health policies, it’s vital that employers do the same and assess their own strategies to make sure they provide the support their workforce wants and needs.

Indeed, the increased focus on mental health first aid training and tackling discrimination in the workplace on the basis of mental health is a positive step, especially at a time when the pandemic is having such an impact on the nation’s mental health, both in the short- and long-term.


Deep impact

The move towards stronger mental health procedures comes during a time when wellbeing levels have been at their lowest since 2011, with nearly half of people in Britain experiencing high anxiety during the UK’s first lockdown (https://bbc.in/3cVoDKN). This is not likely to have improved over the past twelve months, with workers continuing to deal with lower incomes, furlough and uncertainty around their future.

These concerns, among others outside of work, can cause disengagement and poor concentration, which are, in turn, aggravated by associated symptoms of stress, such as poor sleep. With so many workers currently feeling stressed, not addressing mental health problems in the workplace will have a knock-on impact on business performance. One in five (22%) employers say that poor wellbeing caused reduced productivity with 19% also reporting a higher number of absences (https://bit.ly/3dDXwDu).

Clearly businesses need to find a way to help staff deal with poor mental health, but implementing an ineffective strategy can see potentially thousands of pounds worth of investment in benefits spent in the wrong places. During a time of such economic uncertainty, this is not a mistake that businesses can afford to make, particularly when tailoring a scheme around individual employee needs would have resulted in lower costs in the first place.

...easy access to information, education, and guidance about mental health and wellbeing...

Putting in place the right strategy

With the new Mental Health Act reforms introduced, employers will be increasingly expected to ensure mental health schemes are fit for purpose and adjusted to suit changing circumstances and potential issues that come with them. To ensure benefits make the desired impact, leadership buy-in, and effective and regular communication and measurement are crucial. But, with so many different providers and options to form a wellbeing strategy, it can be easy for employers to feel overwhelmed about how to best help employees.

What employees want and need can change rapidly, particularly during times of crisis. Many employees will be facing unique and often stressful situations, such as caring for a loved one, that could impact on their mental health. Using communication tools such as confidential staff surveys or face-to-face chats can allow employers to gather large volumes of opinions and feedback to determine what mental health support is needed for each employee.

Employers should also be consistently providing easy access to information, education, and guidance about mental health and wellbeing, or other issues flagged by employees. For example, if financial concerns are rife, sharing free-to-use resources, such as information from the Money Advice Service, may help staff address problems they don’t feel comfortable talking about.

Emerging technology such as self-assessment apps can also encourage employees to check their wellbeing independently and confidentially. These apps help employees determine whether they need to speak to their employers about additional wellbeing support, such as one-on-one counselling or help managing finances. Through this, employers and staff can then work together to create a bespoke and tailored employee benefits program.


Moving forward

Employers introducing and improving workplace mental health and wellbeing provisions will come during a time when millions of workers are concerned about their short-, medium-, and long-term future. There are a wide range of options available for employers to create a mental health support strategy that identifies individual employee needs and raises awareness about general wellbeing.

However, consistent communication, strong action from the leadership team, and regular measurement of employee data are required to ensure the mental health strategy remains relevant. Doing so successfully can lead to higher wellbeing levels among staff, improved productivity and retention levels, and better returns on the investments the company makes on mental health support. n

Featured in the May 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.