Could offering Employee Assistance Programmes help beat the increase in long-term sickness in the UK and help companies struggling with employee sickness here? Are we missing a trick?
Some thoughts here from Tim Heard, healthcare rm, part of HCML. Tim has 20 years’ experience working in all aspects of occupational health, safety and wellbeing within healthcare rm, part of HCML. His experience includes the management of psychological risk at an organisational level, consultancy and implementation of companywide wellbeing strategies and the provision of solutions to support healthcare rm’s clients.
He also offers guidance through crisis situations, psychological risk assessments and mental health training. As Business Psychologist, Tim’s role requires agile thinking and an open mind to the huge variety of challenges companies face in improving the mental health of their employees.
The NHS is experiencing some of the most severe pressures in its 75-year history according to the British Medical Association. It is the symptom of years of inadequate planning and chronic under-resourcing1. The cost of living crisis and the Covid pandemic have added to the stress on the service with a perfect storm of mental health referrals rising and less funding available.2 This situation means that many mental health services are over capacity and those in need of mental health treatment may find they are facing a considerable wait for treatment.
The knock-on effect of this on society can ultimately be seen in the workplace as those suffering from poor mental health may find completing their working day difficult. As a result they may take time away from the workplace. This is difficult for businesses to sustain economically and periods away from the workplace can affect an individual’s morale and confidence with short-term sick absences potentially turning into longer-term absences. Working from home also means managers are unable to monitor or spot the signs of a decrease in employees’ wellbeing as effectively as they would in the office. Checking in on people for an informal chat to see how they are, and what they’ve been up to and gauge whether they need any support presents challenges for employers.
According to the Labour Force Survey 2022, ‘musculoskeletal problems’ and ‘mental health conditions’ were the third and fourth most common reasons for long-term sickness absence. From our own data over the last four years, we’ve seen that mental health, MSK and respiratory conditions have been the main causes of sickness absence. The 2022 data found a 42% increase in long-term sickness for people aged between 25-34 consistent with reports that mental ill health including anxiety and depression is considerably higher in younger age groups now.
POST LOCKDOWN ISOLATION
Given all that has happened over the past few years and currently, such as the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the cost of living crisis, environmental concerns and the ongoing war in Europe, this increase may not be surprising. The younger generation will be in a position where they are trying to get on the housing ladder, focusing on developing their careers and generally building a better future for themselves. The older generation are likely to be more stable across all areas of life including financial, career as well as family/social. With age also comes resilience. Experience has a lot to do with this, in setting realistic expectations and not feeling the pressure of life in the way that we may once have as young adults.
The rise in reporting on this is perhaps partly down to the fact that more organisations are aware of mental health issues and encourage their staff to be more open about their mental health. Employees may feel more comfortable in being able to report poor mental health rather than struggling. This would not have been the case for previous generations, where mental health conditions were generally not disclosed at work. This is perhaps reflected in the behaviour of the older generation, who, at a younger age, felt they could not talk about their mental health at work and perhaps are still in that mindset and may not even recognise a mental health condition within themselves. Organisations now do much more to encourage a positive shift against the stigma of mental health issues which ultimately leads to happier, healthier and more productive workforces.
HOW IT WORKS
An Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is commonly a telephone service offered by an employer to their employees that provides free, confidential advice. The service tends to focus on support for mental health, legal and financial wellbeing. Employees can contact the EAP for advice and guidance, may be offered a set number of counselling sessions, and generally signposted to a range of other services to support their specific needs, whether it be mental health, financial concerns or legal matters. Some people are uncomfortable disclosing health and wellbeing concerns to employers and benefit from the confidentiality an EAP affords them. But employers often find that employee engagement and use of EAPs is very low.
We’ve found there to be a strong correlation between ill health and personal risks such as inactivity, excess weight, poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, negative attitudes and beliefs. Enhancing an EAP offering to address these underlying causal and contributory risk factors can help prevent the risk of ill health and encourage employees to proactively look after their own health to reduce the likelihood of not only mental health concerns, but also musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions.
As the prevalence of MSK conditions increases with age, and with MSK ranking as the third highest reason for workplace absence, incorporating MSK services as part of an EAP offering would help address some of the physical wellbeing issues amongst the workforce. This can be offered through a digital pathway which offers convenience and quick access to treatment, which can include self-help, virtual or face to face physiotherapy. In addition, our data demonstrates that out of 35,000 people undergoing an MSK assessment:
• 69% were overweight
• 92% did not meet the required activity guidelines
• 43% regularly had less than 6 hours of sleep a night
We find similar underlying causes and contributory risk factors when it comes to mental health conditions.
Offering a far broader level of benefits that address lifestyle factors such as support with exercise, weight management, nutrition and sleep within an EAP helps support overall wellbeing and prevents conditions developing that may otherwise need more clinical intervention. Of particular interest is the impact of limiting fears and attitudes to health conditions.
• For MSK issues, 58% of users accessing our services presented limiting fears and attitudes to their condition
• For mental health issues, 49% presented limiting fears and attitudes to their condition
SUPPORT IN THE WORKPLACE
In addition to the standard mental health support that EAPs offer such as counselling and talking therapies, the inclusion of additional services that specifically address attitudes, beliefs and fears about health, work and life, such as wellbeing coaching and self-help, can reduce sickness absence and the onset of further ill health. This psychosocial support could make a real difference to younger employees whose mental health is having a significant impact on their ability to work and overall wellness.
EAP’s may provide help for our younger workforce as well as take the strain off an already overstretched NHS and ensure that struggling businesses are not losing workers. Our working lives are getting longer and the ability to recruit and retain talent is becoming more competitive. Younger employees tend to place
more weight on the benefits offered by prospective employers when it comes to choosing a company to work for, particularly those that put emphasis on work-life balance and health and wellbeing. On the flip side, the government is trying to attract older people back into work and therefore maintaining good health is vital. .
While many businesses are unable to offer private medical cover to the whole of their workforce, providing an EAP that addresses a whole range of health and wellbeing concerns would offer a tangible return and value on investment and employee experience.
Collating detailed health and wellbeing data from this type of EAP service can also help organisations design and implement targeted wellbeing strategies and initiatives to manage health benefits more effectively and improve overall employee health and wellbeing.
If companies do not think about offering some kind of healthcare assistance to their workforce then there will be an obvious impact on workforce productivity and ultimately the bottom line, including others having to pick up additional work and the indirect cost of sickness absence. This can create a cycle in which the added work demands on employees can impact their own mental health and wellbeing. The wider impacts include pressure on the NHS increasing as will health conditions due to the inability to access treatment. EAPs are not an emergency service, nor do they replace the NHS, but with further enhancement they can help to reduce NHS wait times and could ultimately help companies remain operational in the long-term.