After Covid, sharing data will be key to improving wellbeing

With a mental health crisis on the horizon, organisations must work together to define best practice around employee health, argues Eugene Farrell

Employers need to start opening up and sharing data on employee wellbeing or HR will never know what's working – and critically, what’s best practice for UK employers, as a community, for addressing the post-Covid-19 fallout. Otherwise everyone is just scratching around, wasting investment.

There’s a consensus among commentators over what’s happening and what’s coming: a ‘tsunami’ of mental illness according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists and work-related stress is going to soar, argues Professor Sir Cary Cooper.

No-one knows to what extent the grim predictions will materialise, how, and what the implications will actually be for employers. But it’s reasonable to expect higher levels of absence as a result of stress and anxiety; more complexity of problems bound up with financial insecurities, relationship breakdowns, and a need to step up the HR response. But what?

It’s with the crisis in mind that the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has been exploring the effectiveness of workplace counselling for the new world of work we’re entering: the urgent need to see employee mental wellbeing as a platform for organisational resilience. Its study, commissioned by the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), looks at the role of workplace counselling, the evidence for how it works and how its impact can be maximised for a post-Covid future. It is based on a review of recent evidence and an expert roundtable to collect the views of experienced practitioners.

Overall, the findings confirm that workplace counselling has a huge part to play in helping employees. Literature and roundtable evidence suggest that, used effectively, workplace counselling means the minimising of sickness absence, reduced presenteeism and maximising job retention and vocational rehabilitation. In other words, in a context of insecurity and increased pressure, counselling is a relatively simple way forward. Qualified workplace counsellors, the authors argue, could play an enhanced role in supporting workplace health interventions by collaborating with other professionals, such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists. Access to high quality, trained workplace counsellors through their employers will be crucial to improving the national picture of mental health support, providing much-needed support to NHS services.

But the key finding from the IES report is the need to know much more. There needs to be more collaboration among all stakeholders around employee wellbeing – but HR and employers in particular – in terms of sharing their available data on how counselling services are being used and why; greater evaluation of the impact and value of counselling and the different forms of ROI involved, as well as which models of workplace counselling work best for different groups of employees. The report argues for standardised definitions of terms for more reliable comparisons between providers and a minimum reporting system or dataset, allowing for benchmarking  across services.

The same applies across wellbeing tactics and offerings so that we can start to make comparisons on impact on what works for who. From being the ‘right thing’ to offer employees, EAPs and other forms of workplace counselling have become a substantial part of an organisation’s risk and resilience planning. But the next step is to make evaluation an essential for any wellbeing strategy, and together we can find a genuinely tried and tested wellbeing framework for all.

Eugene Farrell is chair of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA)