Prevention is better than cure – keeping employees well and in work
By Dr Tarun Gupta, Medical Officer at Legal & General
Covid-19 specific anxiety could further exacerbate existing – and ever rising – work-related stress issues, especially as employees shift from homeworking or furlough back to workplaces. What does prevention look like?
There’s nothing new about the concept of prevention being better than cure. And the importance of ensuring this is ingrained into employer support for mental health cannot be over-estimated; for the sake of people and business. This isn’t just an absence management issue, it’s also a presenteeism, productivity and reputation issue. It’s also a potential employer liability issue. But what can you do when the issue simply cannot be prevented – in other words, when the stressor is a global pandemic? In short, you can’t. But you can put it into perspective. First, don’t make the mistake of medicalising normal stress reactions to adverse events or circumstances. Second, help prevent a temporary problem becoming something altogether more permanent.
The extent of the problem
Right now, mental health issues are on the increase, accounting for half (51%) of all work-related ill health cases in 2019/20 (the main factors for which were found to be work related). At the same time, we’re also seeing media reports of issues we’ve never heard before; Coronaphobia, Post Pandemic Stress Disorder, Post Lockdown Anxiety. It’s likely that home working is masking the true extent of these issues.
GPs and mental health experts are describing Covid-19 specific anxiety as an emerging phenomenon. Almost half (49.6%) of the population were experiencing high levels of anxiety last year. And, despite the success of the vaccine roll-out, we’re not out of the woods yet, with end of furlough and the potential for redundancies looming.
As home working continues for some, often in less-than-ideal circumstances, and others are gearing up for a return to places of work – either post furlough, or as part of a shift – in whole or part – back from homeworking, it’s probably safe to say that levels of all types of anxiety will grow. Typical components of Covid-19 specific anxiety include constant worry (causing symptoms like palpitations and problems with diet and sleep), preoccupation with worries and fears, and avoidant behaviour – all of which are directly related to getting or spreading the virus.
The typical causes of work-related stress – workload, hours, managers – might well exacerbate these issues, adding to the stressors.
Don’t medicalise normal reactions
Whether Covid-19 related or work related, the stress is no doubt problematic for the individual, but it’s not necessarily permanent. It’s likely the situation could be improved by removing the stressor. In the meantime, there’s a strong case for making better use of the wellbeing benefits and services to which you might already have access, such as embedded value services with group income protection (Employee Assistance Programmes, Eldercare support and Long Covid support packages); better equipping individuals, equipping line managers and equipping HR in their legal duty to prevent injury occurring, specifically with regard to stress that is workplace or employment related.
Although use of such services has increased during the pandemic, we’re arguably only just scratching the surface of their full potential. The sticking point is that support is usually poorly communicated within organisations, its relevance isn’t always clear and there are unwarranted concerns over privacy; individuals feeling that their employer may know they’ve used a counselling helpline, for example, and this might be viewed as a negative (perhaps where trust in an organisation is an issue). This represented one of the key findings in recent research by Legal & General, with one in five (19%) employee respondents citing privacy concerns as a barrier to usage, rising to nearly a quarter (23%) among women.*
Unfortunately, employers won’t improve relevance and usage of benefits and services in the absence of any insights into their employees’ state of mind and circumstances. And an annual satisfaction survey – the insight gathering tool used by the majority of companies – just doesn’t cut it. So, where do you start?
5 steps to taking a preventative approach to employee mental wellbeing:
- Integrate benefits and wellbeing agendas. Encourage an ethos of self-care amongst employees, as part of wider wellbeing strategy and a supportive and trusting culture. Weave in to your wellbeing initiatives signposting to professional sources of support via the benefits you already have in place; employee assistance programmes, second medical opinions etc.
- Identify potential problem areas. Employers have statutory obligations under the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974), a duty of care for employee wellbeing, including mental health. This involves: minimising risk such as workload, role and expectations; identifying issues by monitoring absenteeism and presenteeism, also using the HSE stress risk assessment tool.
- Listen to your people. A year-round employee listening programme will help you not only identify areas of risk, but also help you design benefit and wellbeing programmes and communications that connect. Insight gathering could involve a combination of anything from HSE stress risk assessment data (as mentioned above), satisfaction and engagement surveys, absence statistics, insurance claims data, insights from 3rd party wellbeing providers, line manager appraisals, onboarding and exit feedback.
- Work together across departments and providers. Ensuring a more joined-up approach across HR, Health & Safety and Occupational Health, as well as across insurers and intermediaries to help gather and interpret this data, allowing for appropriate interventions to be put in place, where relevant.
- Create communications that really connect. Create wellbeing content that people can see themselves in. Reduce the ‘noise’ by having a clear content strategy. Creating a messaging ‘hierarchy’ and prioritising your content by level of reach per channel is essential, so focus on clarity of message and method of delivery.
* Legal & General commissioned Opinium to carry out this research, involving 1,087 UK employees who have access to either IP, CIC or EAP. Dec 2020.