It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year is highlighting stress as a major cause of mental illness. Aon’s Benefits and Trend Survey[i] released in January revealed a sharp increase in the number of employers reporting employee stress and mental health-related illnesses – up from 55% last year to 68% in 2018. Other research from King’s College London[ii] found that lonely millennials are more likely to experience mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, than the general public.
So how can employers tackle the rise in workplace mental health issues?
Absence management expert Adrian Lewis, Director at Activ People HR believes that employers could make far better use of technology and data to spot the signs of mental health issues and initiate conversations about mental health issues.
According to Adrian;
“Mental Health Awareness week is important week as it raises more awareness of an issues that is becoming an epidemic in the UK, especially in the younger people. Mental health is very much in the news agenda, and is even making soap storylines, such as Aidan Connor’s suicide in last week’s Coronation Street, which was caused by his mental illness. Employers have a responsibility to their workforce and can use technology to proactively spot mental health issues, such as stress and anxiety and support staff before they start taking long periods of absence.”
Stress and stress-inducing situations are the main causes of short-term absence (up to 26 weeks) according to industry body Group Risk Development (GRiD)[iii]. A Government report found that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £42 billion a year[iv]. It also highlighted that around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.
“There is still a great deal of stigma associated with mental illness and both employers and employees can find it a difficult thing to discuss. Using technology such as absence management software not only track absence rates accurately but provides data that can show trends to employers and which can help managers initiate conversations to find out if employees are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression and let them know they won’t be judged.”
A new survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) highlights the growing problem of ‘presenteeism’ – with 86% of employers they surveyed having observed staff coming into work while ill in the last year.
This is up from 72% in 2016, and just 26% of employers in 2010. However, employers are doing little to tackle this growing problem. The CIPD found just a quarter of respondents that have experienced presenteeism say their organisation has taken steps to discourage it over the last year, a figure that has almost halved since 2016 (48%).
Adrian Lewis, Director of Activ Absence says,
“These new figures suggest that people are scared to take time off from work even if they are sick, for fear of losing their jobs or not getting work finished on time. However coming into work whilst ill can make people worse, not to mention spread germs to others if they are suffering from colds and flu.”
“Preseetenism can also have a long term effect on an employee’s health and wellbeing and lead to further problems down the line such as stress, especially if they are regularly coming into work sick. It can be a vicious circle that increases stress as people struggle to work and find it difficult to perform at their best.”
The CIPD found that increased presenteeism is associated with increases in reported common mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, as well as stress-related absence – among the top causes of long-term sickness absence. The CIPD also found that the average level of employee absence rose slightly to 6.6 days per employee per year, up from 6.3 in 2016.
Adrian Lewis says,
“Both presenteeism and absenteeism can impact productivity and employers must do more to tackle these issues. One solution is to invest in technology such as absence management software that can help organisations spot trends, which can uncover underlying health issues such as stress.
“Often employers are blind to what is happening and have no idea that someone has taken a lot of time off sick or regularly coming into work feeling unwell. Having the right systems in place adds transparency and a way to get to the root causes of any rise in absence.
“This in turn helps a business plan more effectively, tailor support if needed and improve the health and wellbeing of their employees. The long term business benefits of looking after your workforce shouldn’t be underestimated, including better engagement, motivation and productivity,”
Here are some other ways organisations can start to tackle presenteeism:
• Develop a policy on both absenteeism and presenteeism and make sure everyone in the organisation is aware of it
• Boost morale in the workplace. Perhaps look at more team building activities or something simple such as ordering lunch in the office every Friday to say thank you
• Encourage people to look out for their colleagues and spot signs if someone is ill or struggling at work. Also provide proper training for managers to recognise the symptoms of stress, ill health or mental health problems
• Ensure managers are aware of what causes presenteeism. Large workloads or tight deadlines can stop people taking time off in order to get things done. Line managers should be able to manage their teams workloads appropriately
• Make sure managers have the soft skills to be able to communicate effectively with their team and promote open communication. They should also encourage positive working and wellbeing practices including strategies for better work/life balance