To mark National Stress Awareness Day this week, employers are being asked to create a “Stress Awareness Space” in their organisation where staff can go to share their thoughts and feelings. Of course, employers that offer an Employee Assistance Programme as part of their occupational health and employee health provision already pretty much have this.
Employee health and wellbeing – employers still need to be more open about mental health
This week is both International Stress Awareness Week, run by the International Stress Management Association and, on Wednesday 07 November, National Stress Awareness Day, run by the mental health charity Mind, meaning the spotlight will be well and truly on workplace health and wellbeing.
This also means it will be a great moment for employers to be brave and start to have conversations around employee mental health and stress, both work-related and non-work-related.
The theme of International Stress Awareness Week is “does hi-tech cause hi-stress?”, especially the “freedom” we all now have to work anywhere, anytime of day, day or night.
For National Stress Awareness Day, Mind is challenging employers to “start the conversation” about stress in the workplace. In particular, the charity is urging employers to create a “Stress Awareness Space” where staff can share their thoughts and feelings when they are feeling stressed.
As the charity puts it: “It can make a huge difference sharing how you’re feeling with friends and colleagues. By sharing you could get some great advice and tips or find you can support other colleagues who need help.”
Certainly, you don’t have to look far to recognise that stress and employee mental health is still a big, and growing, challenge for employers.
Fear of revealing mental ill health
Just in the past couple of months, for example, a survey of more than 1,000 employees by wellbeing provider BHSF concluded that more than four out of ten workers (42%) experiencing a mental health issue have pretended to be suffering from a physical health complaint when calling in sick.
A quarter argued they worried they would not have been taken seriously by their employer if they had said they were suffering from poor mental health.
Research by the union body the TUC, meanwhile, has found that nearly seven out of ten (69%) of union health and safety reps put stress as the top issue they are having to deal with in the workplace, especially those working in the public sector.
And Mind joined forces with the HR body the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) in September to publish an updated mental health guide for managers.
The People Managers’ Guide to Mental Health offers general advice on what mental health is and where employees can go for support. It also has advice on good practice in recruitment, early intervention, return to work and how to encourage people to talk about their mental health.
The move was in part prompted by CIPD research suggesting just 32% of organisations trained their line managers to support staff with a mental health issue, and Mind research arguing that just 42% of employees feel their manager would notice if they were struggling with poor mental health.
What, then, should employers make of all this?
Kickstarting conversations and intervention
First, as already noted, calendar markers such as International Stress Awareness Week and National Stress Awareness Day can be a great way to kickstart awareness building and conversations around how (or not) you are supporting your employees when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.
It is also about recognising that, while tackling mental health can feel challenging, there is lot employers can do to be proactive and offer practical help and support around mental wellbeing.
Resilience training, both for managers and employees, workshops, financial wellbeing support and advice, modelling of best practice by senior management (especially around “always on” working, long hours, proper breaks and transparency), creating a more open, inclusive and supportive culture. All this can help.
More widely, offering access to specialist advice and support through occupational health provision can be valuable, both in terms of direct support but also having the ability to refer on serious or complex cases to more specialist mental health providers.
Support through EAPs
Finally, there is the provision of support such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). EAPs are not, of course, an easy fix. But, as Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health emphasises, in many respects what Mind is urging employers to put in place on National Stress Awareness Day is an EAP in all but name.
“An EAP can offer employees a safe, confidential space where they can go to talk about, and get advice on, their fears, worries, stresses and anxieties, whether work-related or otherwise.
“An EAP can also offer valuable best practice advice to managers around how to have what can be perceived as ‘difficult’ conversations around mental health and the steps you can take to support an employee you feel may be struggling.
“It, of course, is not a replacement for specialist mental health support or provision, especially for complex or severe cases. But offering access to an EAP can send out a strong signal across your organisation that mental health and wellbeing is something you take seriously as an employer and are being proactive in supporting,” she points out.