Simplyhealth’s foreword in the CIPD and Simplyhealth’s recently published annual health and well-being survey report makes a crucial point in citing Public Health England CEO Duncan Selbie: ‘The NHS 10-year plan is a huge opportunity, but it will be judged by how it prioritises prevention. We must of course treat illness but even smarter would be to prevent it. With 40% of all poor health being preventable and 60% of 60-year-olds experiencing at least one long-term condition, this has to be a no brainer.’

New research by the John Lewis Partnership, as part of the Working Well Campaign puts further pressure to the need for the UK Government and employers to put a stronger emphasis on prevention. The research, with Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) and a survey with YouGov, estimates that UK businesses could save up to £1.7 billion by 2025 from the cost of absenteeism, just through early clinical intervention for musculoskeletal and mental health conditions.

After minor illnesses, mental health conditions (stress, anxiety, depression or other serious mental health disorders) and musculoskeletal conditions (back, neck, leg or muscular pains and strains) are the two largest causes of sickness absence in UK workplaces, according to ONS data from July 2018, cited in the JLP report. The CIPD’s Health and Well-being survey report also found that the top three causes of long-term absence are mental ill health, stress and musculoskeletal injuries.

Support and prevention are needed

Year on year our health and wellbeing research at the CIPD shows that employers, although recognising the need to create healthy workplaces, put more emphasis on providing support when people become ill rather than taking action to prevent poor health and wellbeing in the first place. Of course, not all health conditions are preventable and it’s vital that organisations have in place provision such as a clear reasonable adjustments policy and good rehabilitation practices to support an effective return-to-work. These are very important and there will undoubtedly be times when an employee needs to take time off, but we also need to see more proactive steps to promote good mental wellbeing and prevent work-related stress.

The steps that employers take to identify and reduce stress at work need to have a stronger focus on risk prevention – less than half carry out risk assessments or stress audits, just 15% use the HSE’s Management Standards and 27% carry out stress management training for the whole workforce.

CIPD research shows a trend of reactive measures when it comes to how most organisations support people with mental health issues, although we have seen an increase in the number of employers that are proactively raising awareness of mental health across their organisation. However, just 40% train line managers to support staff with mental health and around 50% train managers to manage stress. And yet it is line managers who will often be the first port of call if an individual is experiencing distress or stress, or work overload, or wants to talk about a mental health issue.

Early intervention needed to support better mental health

Where possible, employees experiencing stress or mental ill health should be able to access support before problems escalate. If an employer is aware of the challenges faced by individuals, and there is a supportive dialogue between the employee and their line manager, it should be possible for the organisation to put in place preventative measures, such as adjustments to workload or a small change in working hours that could make all the difference in some cases. Early access to specialist support is also vital.

The figures cited by the John Lewis Partnership pose a persuasive case for early intervention. In terms of average waiting times for mental health treatment following referral, 88.6% of NHS referrals are within 30 working days compared with 100% of referrals within 12 working days at the John Lewis Partnership. This means that 71% of John Lewis Partners (employees) are in work at the start of treatment and 98% of Partners are in work after treatment.

The YouGov survey of 1,000-plus UK workers by John Lewis Partnership indicates that for a significant proportion of UK workers, mental health can still be a taboo subject at work. Workers are more likely to seek free and confidential support from their employer for musculoskeletal conditions (66%) than mental health conditions (52%). Nearly a third (29%) also disagree that they would be supported by their employer if they were unwell because of a mental health condition.

The John Lewis Partnership says that employers can help by:

  • Intervening early and offering free occupational health services which are high quality and clinically-backed.
  • Promoting good management practices and work-life balance to lay the foundations for a healthy workplace.
  • Creating an inclusive culture, tackling taboos and removing stigma to allow people to thrive so that they can seek help and receive the adjustments they need.
  • Sharing best practice and evidence and promoting the business case for investing in the health of their people.

Creating mentally healthy working environments

It’s clear we have some way to go before the majority of workplaces achieve parity of esteem in the attention that good mental health receives compared with physical health, and the confidence and openness with which this aspect of health is treated.

The aim should be to consider the health and well-being of the whole person; organisations have a responsibility to manage stress and mental health at work, making sure employees are aware of the services and support available to them and how to access them. It’s also crucial that employers promote an open and inclusive culture so that employees feel confident about discussing a mental health issue and discussing the challenges they are experiencing.

There are a number of free resources available to help organisations develop a preventative and supportive approach to mental health at work, including:

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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