Absences due to stress and mental ill-health are becoming higher priority issues for employers and HR departments. According to Health and Wellbeing at Work, published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in May 2018, the number of employees experiencing mental health issues is on the rise, and stress is one of the major causes of workplace absence.
At Unum, we have identified a similar, worrying trend. When we looked back at our own data we found that stress featured in 52% of our mental health claims in the first three months of 2017, more than double compared to the same period just two years earlier. This is a red flag for employers because stress has the potential to manifest into more complex conditions, requiring even longer absences.
The connection between stress and other mental health problems is not always easy to identify, and both can take considerable time before people feel well enough to return to work.
Stress is something every employee will face in some form; whether a bereavement or a relationship breakdown, life throws events at everyone that can create stress, trauma and the need for extra support. In the wrong conditions, these problems have the potential to spiral into longer-term mental ill-health.
The window of opportunity
Often, a natural first step for someone to take when they realise they are struggling is to visit their GP.
Though GPs are generally very supportive, factors including short appointment times, lack of specialist psychiatric knowledge and being unaware of what demands the employee faces at work can all be limitations when it comes to identifying the appropriate next steps for individuals seeking help.
But if the important early window of opportunity is missed, that employee’s problems can grow, while behaviours and negative mindsets can set in that may be hard to shift.
In these cases, a domino effect is created. A situational crisis, or anxiety or depression triggered by a life event, may escalate to the point where the individual no longer feels able to continue with their normal life, including being able to work. This, in turn, may add to a downward spiral.
Going to work can be a key factor in maintaining mental wellbeing. Early, focused intervention with the right support is vital in helping individuals cope during difficult times and enabling them to continue with their normal activities, including staying in work.
Access to a trained specialist who can identify timely, supportive and focused interventions can remove the burden of navigating complex options from both employer and employee, and help ensure people receive the right support at the right time.
Since accessing this support is difficult, early intervention services are important in helping employers and employees who are concerned about mental wellbeing. By contacting trained health professionals as soon as someone is recognised as being at risk, employers can help prevent burnout stress or anxiety from becoming long-term conditions that might lead to prolonged time off work.
Trained specialists will take the time to understand the situation, exploring the medical, social and psychological factors contributing to the employee’s absence before developing an appropriate and targeted response.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to guarantee good mental health; nevertheless, promoting mental wellbeing at work can only prove beneficial in the long run.
As well as working with individual employees, resources designed to help employers improve awareness, build resilience and train key staff in how best to support and improve mental health in the workplace can be key.
Ambika Fraser is head of proposition at Unum