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Are employee assistance programmes failing those with mental ill-health?

30 Jan 2020 By Brian Hall

Employers need to do more than simply offer a one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing, argues Brian Hall

Seemingly not a week goes by without another report or survey emerging detailing the dire state of mental health among UK employees. Despite a much stronger focus on the need to support mental health in the workplace over the past decade, figures indicate the situation is still getting worse, not better.

At the end of last year the HSE released analysis based on data from the Labour Force Survey that showed a staggering 12.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2018-19. This amounts to an average of 21.2 days lost to each case and represents a steady increase over the last five years.

Whatever employers are doing to protect the mental health of their employees is not working. It’s time to take a step back and consider a fresh approach that can have a positive impact and begin to improve the situation.

Mental health does not exist in isolation. A huge variety of factors have an effect on it; for example, health concerns, money worries, family problems and the pressure of work to name a few. Trying to deal with a person’s mental health without considering factors that may be fuelling the problem is futile – yet this is what happens in many organisations. Wellbeing support isn’t integrated and solutions aren’t connected with one main point of contact.

Employers have a responsibility to take all steps that could be reasonably expected of them to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. With regards to protecting mental health, many employers choose to offer an employee assistance programme (EAP) that often provides some form of counselling service. Around two-thirds of employers offer access to an EAP or counselling service. This of course has value but, as clarified by judges in a 2007 ruling, employers need to do more than simply offer an EAP to fully support their employees’ mental health.

EAPs in their current form are not sufficient to deal with complex mental health issues. The bravery required by employees to reach out is significant and, although schemes offer in the moment support and limited counselling sessions, few are easy to engage with and fewer still have multiple routes of entry. In addition, once engaged with the counselling service, as the name suggests, all that is on offer is counselling. For those who experience psychosis and other deep-seated mental health difficulties, or whose struggle is rooted in practical issues such as caring responsibilities, much more is needed. The approach to the challenge needs to change.

That change is an EAP revolution. We need a dedicated, case-managed, multi-disciplinary team that recognises the needs for a combination of interventions in individual cases. The offering must be more tailored to an individual employees’ needs, moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach. It needs to go much deeper, looking beyond sticking a plaster over the wound, seeking to get to the root of the issue to offer a joined-up, coordinated solution. We at BHSF are going to step up to meet this challenge.

Brian Hall is chief commercial officer at BHSF

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