Brexit tension is building a legacy of poor mental health. A London School of Economics study among 35,000 people last month – mostly ‘Remain’ voters – pointed to an escalation in mental health problems since the 2016 ballot. A YouGov poll also suggests the EU withdrawal situation has led to mental health concerns among a third of voters. In another study it’s suggested that the increase in uncertainty has lead to an increase in antidepressant prescribing.
And it’s worse for EU nationals living and working in the UK, where there have been increased reports of panic attacks and suicidal feelings. And that was all before the current chaos: we’ve yet to see the actual fallout.
Fears about the future in general are known to exacerbate any underlying worries, and NHS mental health bosses are on alert for spikes for a system already under strain. The Brexit situation presents a stiff challenge and test of the actual quality of provision on offer from employers, how comfortable employees feel with making use of services and talking about problems. 38 per cent of employees wouldn’t be open about a mental health issue because of concerns about how it would affect their career, according to a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation.
At the frontline is the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Despite being part of the benefits offering for 30 years, EAPs are still not being used to their full potential when it comes to addressing mental health issues.
What differentiates the EAP from any other form of mental health counselling, coaching or private counselling is that it’s proactive in helping people to anticipate and deal with problems early on. With many employers, however, the EAP continues to be positioned as a last resort. Figures collected by the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association show only a low level of use of the service – an average of around 5 per cent of employees taking advantage of the EAP.
EAP services shouldn’t just be about crises and a way to cope when there’s some form of breakdown, but be more of an everyday life support. Brexit is an example of the benefits there can be for people to open up about what uncertainty means, looks and feels like for themselves and those around them. Managers in general are task- and performance-orientated; it’s not their area of interest, and frankly, typically tend to avoid situations where they have to deal with these kinds of sensitive and personal emotional and psychological questions. There needs to be a release valve, and HR should be using the current situation to open up more channels to EAP support.
Low-level promotion and over-reliance on line managers to flag up the EAP is severely restricting its value to the organisation as an early warning system, allowing employees to get more specific professional support, and only perpetuating the belief that the EAP is just for those people with a serious problem to address.
So Brexit is an opportunity, for awareness and attitudes among management and staff, making looking after psychological wellbeing something normal, something we all keep an eye on. And it’s important to remember that keeping staff in work isn’t only good for the organisations – it’s a critical part of any recovery, for retaining a sense of normality, being part of a social circle, for having a clear sense of purpose, receiving recognition and rewards.
Eugene Farrell is head of the UK's Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) and mental health lead at AXA PPP healthcare