Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF Occupational Health

A recent survey has discovered that just 15% of employees would tell their line manager about a mental health issue. With poor mental health affecting an increasing number of the UK’s working population, it is crucial that businesses address the stigma attached to mental health in the workplace.

Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF Occupational Health, shares his advice on supporting employees and creating a more open culture.

New research from health and wellbeing provider BHSF, has revealed the real reason employees call in sick, with 42% claiming a physical illness when in reality it is a mental health issue.

It also highlights the need for workplace awareness, with 79% admitting that their employer does not offer dedicated mental health support. This lack of support has led to an average of 8.4 sick days taken each year, per employee, due to poor mental health – causing an increasing strain on colleagues and the UK’s workforce.

What early intervention strategies can employers implement?

Many people are reluctant to discuss mental health issues with their manager, as they fear it could affect promotion, or worry that their peers will judge them. This only reinforces the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

In order to challenge this stigma, workplace culture must be open and supportive, encouraging employees to approach their colleagues or line manager with issues of this nature.

There are simple ways that employers can show that they care about the wellbeing of their staff. Regular communication about mental health during one-to-one lunches, or even team events could encourage staff to open up. Breaking the silence is really the first step towards combating the stigma attached to mental health.

Early intervention strategies can also be incredibly valuable for employers and, more importantly, their employees, offering crucial support at the initial stage. Early intervention measures include the provision of mental health first aiders, or nominated responsible people that are amenable to offer support.

Most employers, no matter how small they are, will have a first-aider, as it is required by law. Encouraging a nominated first-aider to train as a mental health first-aider makes good business sense. Mental health first-aiders are becoming increasingly popular because they provide an independent point of contact, removed from the line of function.

Confidential surveys are also a great technique to establish a baseline. Not only is a mental health survey low cost, it is also an effective way of benchmarking your organisation against other employers. Employees must be assured that the information they give is confidential in order for this to be an accurate assessment.

How easy is it to spot the tell-tale signs?

There are many indicators of poor mental health that employers can look out for. This could be something as little as poor time-keeping and attendance, or being forgetful and distracted. These changes in behavior are often initial signs – and line managers are usually best placed to spot these.

Similarly, if an employee shows signs of being suddenly withdrawn, isolated, or has a tendency to react irrationally to trivial situations, these all offer an early indicator that an employees’ mental health is deteriorating. In most cases, their performance at work will subsequently decline, which in turn can impact the business.

When should employers intervene?

If action is taken at the earliest stage, it can help to resolve the problem efficiently and prevent further deterioration. This is where an occupational health service can really offer a next level of support. Rather than an employer waiting for an individual to be signed off from work, it is possible to action an early referral if an employer is concerned about an individual’s wellbeing.

Occupational health is covered by the ethical codes of confidentiality, so employees are not obliged to tell their employer anything. Expert clinicians are best placed to diagnose a mental health problem. In order to provide a detailed assessment, they will conduct a clinical interview to build a picture of the employee’s mental wellbeing.

Alternatively, the BHSF Occupational Health Adviceline offers support on a wide range issues over the phone. The Adviceline is based on a 'what should I do now/next' philosophy, and can help managers solve employee problems, by targeting the most appropriate sources of help.

The good news is that smaller employers can still take advantage of this opportunity, even if they don’t have an arrangement with an occupational health provider in place. SMEs can contact their federation for access to specialist guidance and occupational health advice.

By introducing HR initiatives, employers can offer staff an extra support system. HR tools such as Employee Assistance Programmes offer vital help and have become an integral part of the proactive approach to managing mental health problems in the workplace.

Now is the time for businesses to look at their current approach to mental health and make improvements where necessary. It is the employer’s responsibility to eradicate the stigma that currently exists in the workplace by creating an open culture, and introducing measures to support employee wellbeing.

By prioritising mental health, employers could see a huge transformation in staff engagement, retention and even productivity.

Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF Occupational Health

About BHSF: A leading supplier of health insurances, employee benefits and HR support services.  Established in 1873, it is one of the oldest names in healthcare serving over 3,000 client companies and many individual customers. Client organisations include Mondeléz International, Jaguar Land Rover, Birmingham City Council, Argos and Homebase.

The Company covers over 375,000 people under its health and accident insurance policies, serving very many more through EAPs online benefits and other services.  BHSF Occupational Health Limited provides workplace healthcare to businesses throughout the UK. Group turnover is £43m.

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