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Work – a place to help or hinder our mental health goals?

We spend much of our lives at work. Even when we are not physically at work, people are finding it increasingly hard to switch off from it. Technology has encouraged an ‘always on’ culture that can make it hard for employees to disconnect and the thought of turning off your work phone and missing something could cause more stress than replying to an email in the first place. 

Research by the Myers-Briggs company found that people who are ‘always on’ are usually more engaged at work, but more likely to experience stress or mental exhaustion, with nearly a third of employees being unable to ‘switch off’. This kind of stress, if left unmanaged, can lead to mental and physical health problems further down the line and can result in an individual taking significant time off work. This is problematic for both the individual and the company. Companies need to encourage their employees to find the right balance and encourage people to be remain engaged at work, but to also notice the signs when this starts to become less healthy.

One way in which some companies have tried to tackle this is to put restrictions on employees’ access to work emails outside working hours. However, systems like this will only work in organisations which operate on a strict nine-to-five basis, which are an increasingly rare occurrence. Many companies, especially smaller ones, place huge emphasis on every individual’s time, inside and out of work. This can foster a culture where long hours are expected and switching off is seen as non-committal or unacceptable. How many of times have you, or a friend, answered a work question on your phone after hours? Unfortunately, ‘switching off’ from work is rarely as easy as turning your phone onto airplane mode. A more feasible approach is to offer support to employees at work and help them manage stressful periods and not slip into a period of serious mental ill-health.

Mental health is an unavoidable part of the human condition and, just like your physical health, it needs to be looked after, both in our work time and in our own time. Whether you handle it well or poorly, it is still a part of you and impacts all aspects of your life. Stress is one of the most common feelings which is captured under the wide umbrella term of mental health. It is so widespread that Cigna found that 84% of respondents in its 360 Global Well-Being Survey from this year said they were stressed.[1] Stress is the body’s natural response to an event or situation - it can be helpful, but it can also impede how you carry out your daily life, especially if you don’t manage it. If you ignore it, the results can be worse further down the line as chronic stress is one of the biggest contributors to life-threatening illnesses – such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

This is a point well made by Phil Austin, CEO of Cigna Europe, when he recently said: “Mental health and physical health – mind and body – are interconnected. Taking action so that people and healthcare professionals better understand the link means we can do more, sooner, to help people stay healthy. We can’t hide from the fact that the workplace is a stressful place to be, but what we can do is give managers and employees the tools to manage their stress in a structured and engaging way.”

“Cigna wants to help the world take control of stress and hopes to reduce stress-related chronic illnesses. By taking a proactive approach to manage stress, we can reduce chronic illnesses, and lead happier, healthier and longer lives and by encouraging people to seek the right advice, we can potentially, save lives as part of our core mission to improve the health, well-being and peace of mind of those we serve.”

Most people do not want to go to the doctor to discuss their mental health. This can be due to perceptions of how it will be dealt with, or not wanting to be prescribed anti-depressants, or not thinking it is ‘bad enough’ to seek professional help. As a result, conditions can bubble underneath the surface until it gets to the point where you feel snowed under and cannot cope. We should not let this happen. More focus should be put on promoting stress management at work in order to avoid the worst-case scenario.

It is now, more than ever, a priority to keep people healthy and in work. This is particularly the case for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) which have fewer than 250 employees, as the absence of one person in the company due to mental health will have a significant impact on that company’s resources.

In its Sickness absence and return to work trends report, Unum found that mental health concerns were the most common reason for customers accessing its return to work support.[1] There is a clear appetite from employees for these kinds of support services, but many companies simply don’t offer them.

Matthew Reed, Founder and Managing Director of Equipsme, stated that “whilst most SMEs are interested in health insurance, uptake has been historically low. This is due to a number of factors that all link back to unsuitable product design - complicated questions that brokers can feel embarrassed to ask their clients and low usage rates which make health insurance seem like poor value compared to other employee benefits. Meanwhile, cash plans have failed to keep up with the pinch points of our public healthcare system, leaving staff out of pocket for dental treatment but doing nothing to help them speak to a GP.

New entrants will help to reverse the overall shrinking of the market. So far around 90% if Equipsme’s customers had never previously bought PMI for example. PMI will remain a popular choice for directors and large firms looking to reward senior managers.”

Equipsme found that only 5% of UK businesses provide any form of healthcare packages to their employees. Equipsme provides affordable health insurance and wellbeing support to companies with as few as two employees to as many as one thousand. Given that over 99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs, clearly there is a need to provide affordable and accessible products to this section of the market. Employers should recognize the value of offering these products and support services, or at the very least encourage a healthy dialogue with their employees about stress and mental health

As a country that is widely known for its ‘stiff upper lip’ and its ‘keep calm and carry on’ culture, the pace of change in the way we discuss mental health over the past few years has been great to see. Although stigma does not disappear overnight, hopefully we are on the right track to end the taboo and feel comfortable to discuss our mental health in both our personal lives and in the workplace.

[1] “Cigna 360 Global Well-Being Survey,” Cigna, 2019. (wellbeing.cigna.com/) Survey of 13,200 people across 23 markets: Australia, Benelux, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, New Zealand, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, UK and USA.

[2] “Sickness absence and return to work trends,” Unum, 2019. https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/234061/Return-to-work-Report.pdf

Last updated 10/10/2019