Employee mental ill health: tips on spotting the signs

Spotting the signs of stress or mental ill health among employees can be vital to the effective management of staff wellbeing and sickness absence.

The workplace can, after all, have a significant impact on our mental health, either as a cause of problems or as a facilitator of wellbeing.

Where employees are struggling to cope, early intervention can hold the key to preventing situations from escalating into more serious, and potentially longer term, problems. Line managers will usually be well placed to monitor employees’ work activities, behaviour and general wellbeing, enabling them to identify early warning signs of stress or mental ill health.

Although symptoms will vary, there are a number of tell-tale signs – often be linked to a change in behaviour – that managers should be aware of.  These early warning signals can be categorised as being either physical, psychological or behavioural.

Physical symptoms

Physical pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          low energy or fatigue

–          frequent headaches, back, chest or joint pain

–          a change in weight or appetite

–          physical shaking or verbal trembling

Psychological symptoms

Psychological pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          aggression or extreme mood swings

–          a lack of motivation

–          unusual emotional displays, such as crying

–          confusion or memory lapses

–          indecision and a lack of self-confidence

Behavioural symptoms

Behavioural pointers to cases of mental ill health may include the following:

–          increased incidents of sickness absence

–          poorer workplace performance

–          poor time keeping

–          irritability or bouts of anger

–          an increase in drinking and smoking

–          withdrawal from social interactions

Addressing the issue: an intervention strategy

There is good evidence to suggest that earlier intervention leads to better outcomes. But how do you go about it?

Engaging with a problem calls for establishing open communication with the employee in a sensitive and supportive manner and then developing an appropriate action plan. This plan might include signposting advice and support, such as the employee speaking to their GP, undertaking OH assessments or arranging counselling through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). For more information, see our guide on possible treatments for tackling mental health issues.

Workplace triggers for stress should also be identified and addressed as required. For further advice on protecting employees from the harmful consequences of stress and anxiety, see our guide on implementing an effective stress management programme.

View slider version

Almost half of Brits would welcome use of wearables in workplace (18/10/2016)

British business could be set for a wearable revolution after research found 45 per cent of workers would welcome the introduction of the technology by their employers.

Wearable gadgets, such as fitness bands and smartwatches, have experienced a huge surge in popularity, with the global market expected to hit US$5.8 billion by 2018, a 800 per cent increase on its 2012 value.1 This popularity provides businesses with an opportunity to use the technology to collect valuable data on employee health.

The study commissioned by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson, discovered almost one in 10 British employees (nine per cent) are already offered wearables by their employers, with the figure reaching 26 per cent in London.

“Wearables have become commonplace in recent years and their popularity provides employers with a golden opportunity to collect valuable data that can be used to improve health and wellbeing,” said Mike Blake, Director at PMI Health Group.

“Already, we have seen several examples of businesses operating company-funded wearable schemes, where employees accept devices in the understanding that the data generated will be shared with their employers.

“Such initiatives can form part of wider health and wellbeing programmes, helping businesses to identify areas of risk and empower staff to take positive action. Not only could this enable a more proactive approach to absence management, tackling worrying trends before they become problematic, but it could also help to reduce claims and health insurance costs in the long term.”

The research also found only 40 per cent of British workers would object to sharing personal health-related data generated by wearables with their employers.

“Businesses will find it encouraging that only a minority of staff are opposed to sharing wearable data as part of wellbeing schemes,” added Blake.

“But even when objections are raised, such barriers can often be overcome through clear communication and consultation with employees. It is important for companies to outline what data will remain anonymous and underline that data will not be used in a discriminatory or unfair manner. In cases where data has been used to secure a reduction in insurance premiums, employees may also benefit from reduced contributions themselves, which will help to further smooth the process.”

1 Wearable Technology Market – Global Scenario, Trends, Industry Analysis, Size, Share And Forecast 2012 – 2018, Transparency Market Research

Disability still seen as a barrier to career progression (26/09/16)

More than a third (37 per cent) of UK workers believe disability is still a barrier to career progression, despite anti-discrimination legislation.

In a study commissioned by PMI Health Group, part of Willis Towers Watson, nearly one in five (17 per cent)(1) also claimed employers fail to make adequate provisions to accommodate their, or their colleagues’, disabilities.

“Companies have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments, where necessary, to ensure employees with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the workplace,” said Mike Blake, Director at PMI Health Group.

“In light of these findings, it would be advisable for businesses to ensure they are not falling foul of this legislation. Deploying pre-placement questionnaires that are reviewed by an occupational health professional gives employers the information they need to make reasonable adjustments from the outset. Physical assessments can be carried out by occupational health physicians if more detailed information is required.”

The government has set a target of halving the disability employment gap – the difference in employment rates between disabled and non-disabled people – which stands at 33 per cent(2). This is currently the subject of a parliamentary inquiry(3).

“Health and wellbeing initiatives, including the services available through group income protection and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), can help in establishing a more disability-friendly workplace so companies can attract and retain skilled staff from this important demographic,” added Blake.

“Health and wellbeing initiatives that facilitate early medical intervention for mental and physical conditions can play an important role in establishing a more disability-friendly workplace and reducing incidents of long-term sickness absence.”

(1) From research conducted among workers that have, or work alongside colleagues that have, a disability.

(2) Analysis of ONS Labour Market Statistics, 2016, by disability charity Scope.

(2) Disability employment gap inquiry, Work and Pensions Select Committee, 2016.

How to use wearable technology to help improve your employees’ health

‘Wearable technology’ has become a buzz phrase in HR thanks to the flood of new lifestyle gadgets that have hit the market in recent years.

From the Fitbit to the Apple Watch, these devices are now seen as essential bits of kit by many workers.

But not only do they help to enhance the personal life of the wearer, wearables offer value in the workplace too. This is because they collect, analyse and share information about the wearer, and such data could be valuable to an employer.

Data on things such as heart rate, fitness routines and daily habits could be very useful when tackling sickness absence, designing wellbeing schemes or even negotiating the cost of health benefits.

But should businesses embrace wearables? We take a look at some key considerations for all employers.

1. Employees show appetite

The pervasiveness of wearables in daily life already seems to be helping soften attitudes towards their application in the workplace. In this year’s Willis PMI Group Employee Benefits Index, only 37 per cent of British workers said they would not welcome the introduction of wearable health technology by their employers.

Furthermore, only 40 per cent said they would not be willing to share personal, health-related data generated by wearables with their employers. This general positivity provides employers with an opportunity to use wearables to their advantage.

By finding ways to subsidise such technology, organisations can put themselves in a position to collect valuable data for proactive absence management, while providing staff with a perceived benefit. This way, data collection may be seen as less invasive by the employee.

2. Put a policy in place

If your organisation decides to embrace wearables, it is important to ensure clear policies are put in place for their use.

Where personal wearables are concerned, guidelines might be provided on how they are used at work and what types of data capture are permitted. This might form part of a revised ‘bring your own device’ policy, designed to protect the company’s data security, privacy and confidential information.

For company-sponsored schemes where wearables are provided to staff, the policy should also specify what data will be used, how it is used and any third parties it will be shared with.

It is also appropriate to consider anti-harassment, grievance and disciplinary policies, covering the misuse of wearable technology.  For example, the concealable nature of wearables might increase the possibility of covert recording of conversations without consent.

3. Beware big brother?

Some employees will understandably be wary about devices being used to collect personal data, so it is crucial to be clear about how staff data will be collected, managed and used.

If information is collected to inform absence management, it may be appropriate to appoint a third-party to manage the process and provide only anonymised data as a way of identifying general workforce trends. Otherwise, it is important to be very clear about what data will remain anonymous and underline that data will not be used in a discriminatory or unfair manner.

For wearable technology to be well received, employees will need to be clear on the benefits offered to them. Therefore it should be positioned as an aid that helps to improve overall health and wellbeing rather being used to assess working performance.

4. Covering the cost

To reinforce the benefits offered to employees by wearable technology, companies may look to subsidise devices as part of health and wellbeing programmes. This investment may be justified by potential reductions in health insurance premiums secured by sharing positive fitness data with insurers.

Already many forward-thinking organisations are taking this route, offering staff incentives for doing exercise and sharing data about their activities. Such data would be valuable in proving a reduction in risk profile to insurers, helping to fight the rising premium tide.

Employees, for their part, would not only receive the device but may also benefit from reduced contributions to healthcare schemes themselves.

5. A piece of the jigsaw

Wearables will be most effective when implemented as one complementary piece of a larger wellbeing programme. The data provided by wearables is only beneficial if it proves employees are living healthy lifestyles, so steps should be taken to ensure this is the case.

Wearable technology may work neatly alongside other initiatives, such as lunchtime exercise classes or regular breaks where staff are encouraged to take time away from their desk for a short walk.

Where wearable data highlights negative trends, action should be taken to provide support. For example, if employees suffer from sleep problems, counselling provided by benefits such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) may help to address contributory factors. Workshops could also be organised to provide staff with guidance on how to get a good night’s sleep.

View slider