Businesses need meaningful benefits to battle mental health emergency

Mental Health

In 2019/20, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of work-related ill health cases, according to new HSE research. To tackle this rising tide, businesses are turning to wellbeing strategies and resources for help.

If the daily grind of remote working within the same four walls and spending hours on incessant Zoom calls is starting to get you down, you’re not alone. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), instances of work-related stress, depression or anxiety have increased exponentially over the past year. The study warns that the knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the stress caused by workload pressures – tight deadlines, too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support – are inflicting mental health pressures on staff like never before.

Research published by Oracle and research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence this month found that seniority and age also play a part in how well we are adjusting to the stresses of the pandemic. Although 90% of Gen Z workers said COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health, more than half of C-Suite execs admitted to struggling with mental health issues. The study of more than 12,000 people across 11 countries also found that Millennials are 130% more likely to have experienced burnout than Baby Boomers. Three-quarters of respondents said they thought their company should be doing more to protect their mental health.

Good managers care about the mental wellbeing of their staff and not just for altruistic reasons. A huge proportion of sick days are lost each year due to stress-related issues; in 2019/20, stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health, according to HSE. Even if staff don’t take time off, mental health also affects productivity and is more likely to lead to issues ranging from elementary mistakes to poor customer service.

A new approach to benefits

Not surprisingly, experts are warning that the mental wellbeing of staff needs to be a business priority supported by meaningful strategies and resources. It’s a realisation that is prompting some companies to turn their backs on traditional perks such as subsidised gym memberships or lunchtime yoga sessions in favour of more all-round initiatives that give staff more control to invest in areas that better meet their specific needs.

Robert Ordever, MD of workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner Europe says the pandemic has created a shift in the world of recognition and rewards towards new approaches to leadership that put people’s needs and wellbeing first. “Organisations that used to provide transient perks are now recognising that more meaningful support is now needed, with 2021 being about providing genuine and tailored rewards. This might include home office equipment and furniture, a mental health support line or new flexible working arrangements.”

Ordever said financial wellbeing and support is just as important, with many people finding themselves in difficult situations due to the pandemic fallout. “Offering financial education, support and advice will be well-received by many employees, together with finance schemes such as salary sacrifice loans.”

Jack Curzon, Consulting Director at HR consultancy Mercer, says the popularity of reimbursement schemes is growing, giving staff the freedom to spend an allowance on whichever activities or support mechanisms worked for them. “Giving people the choice of more benefits isn’t necessarily more helpful. Reimbursement schemes improve the flexibility and attractiveness of rewards and you’re saving staff money.” At a time where staff are more connected but less engaged than ever, giving access to these kinds of benefits was a good way to show employees what the company is all about, Curzon added.

Justine Campbell, EY UK&I Managing Partner for Talent, says the blurring of boundaries between home and work life during the pandemic has shifted EY’s priority towards supporting homeworkers with resources to help them make meaningful connections with their team and the wider firm, and provide a good onboarding experience for all new joiners.

“We want our people to think about health and wellbeing from a holistic perspective and ensure they are achieving balance across four areas: physical, mental, social and financial wellbeing. Although it has been critical to have these tools and resources in place over the last year, it is important to review and evolve what we have to meet the challenges of the ever-changing pandemic backdrop. We are making sure we are listening to our people about the challenges they are facing and providing support that will be impactful to their overall health and wellbeing,” Campbell added.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School and advisory Board Member at Delamere Health, say studies show that employees want their employers to offer perks or benefits that have a meaningful impact on their quality of life, rather than ‘quick fixes’ like bean bags and ping pong tables.

“These initiatives are a ‘nice to have’ but aren’t always a must. Perks such as nutrition advice and work-from-home initiatives work as long as they are part of an overall plan to create a ‘wellbeing culture’ within a company. Without a culture of wellbeing, you are firefighting rather than solving the root of the problem. Initiatives need to be brought in strategically.”

First and foremost, employers need to be clear that they have the correct managers in place and don’t have a culture of forced long hours and uncontrolled emails, Cooper warns. “This is harder to manage while working from home and can lead to stress and eventual burnout. Another factor that needs to be considered is job security, following the uncertainty of last year. I would urge employers to foster a culture of open communication, especially where job security is concerned.”

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This content was first published by ICAEW. The original content can be viewed by clicking here.