The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) says that going digital is the way to save the service billions of pounds. The hope is that online ‘digital’ GP consultations and redesigned hospital support will be able to avoid up to a third of outpatient appointments. They say this will save patients 30 million trips to hospital and we are already seeing the implementation of this. However, it is no secret that the NHS is under the biggest pressure in its 75-year history, according to the British Medical Association, with mental health services in particular coming under strain.
The charity Rethink Mental Illness surveyed over 200 people and the results showed that the pressure across the system means many are struggling to access GPs, emergency services and crisis services. More than half (55 per cent) of those surveyed said they had encountered issues accessing a GP for support in the last few months, and 64 per cent agreed that coverage of capacity issues in the NHS has made them less likely to seek support if they needed it from their GP. People reported waiting months for face-to-face appointments.
Long-term sickness absence: a growing concern
Mental health has huge implications for the workplace. The Mental Health Foundation found that 12.7 per cent of all sickness absence days in the UK could be attributed to mental health conditions. These types of health issues often lead to longer-term absences due to their nature and treatment. According to the Labour Force Survey 2022, ‘musculoskeletal [MSK] problems’ and ‘mental health conditions’ were the third and fourth most common reasons for long-term sickness absence. HCML’s own data over the last four years backs this up with our findings supporting mental health, MSK and respiratory conditions being the main causes of sickness absence. For many businesses, employee absence has a direct impact on the long-term economic wellbeing of an organisation. Long-term absence from work is getting worse, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), whose statistics show that between June and August 2022, around 2.5 million people reported long-term sickness as the main reason for economic inactivity, up from around two million in 2019.
Between June and August 2022, around 2.5 million people reported long-term sickness as the main reason for economic inactivity
Mental ill health, including anxiety and depression, is considerably higher in younger age groups now, with the Labour Force 2022 figures showing a 42-per-cent increase in long-term sickness for people aged between 25 and 34. Covid-19, the ongoing war in Europe, environmental concerns and the subsequent cost of living crisis may help to explain this increase. The pressures the younger generation face are different to those of the generation before. Older generations are likely to be more stable across all areas of their lives including financial, career and family/or social. Our attitudes towards speaking about and treating mental health have changed. In the workplace, it is more commonplace to be open about mental ill health today. This would not have been the case for previous generations, where mental health conditions were generally not disclosed at work.
How an employee assistance programme can help
Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are becoming more common as an employee benefit. Helping your employees to access healthcare and advice when it may be difficult to do so outside of the workplace has an obvious benefit in reducing workplace absence due to sickness. An 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. However, employers often find that employee engagement and use of EAPs is very low. 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 mental health concerns and MSK conditions.
Offering a far broader level of benefits that address lifestyle factors within an EAP helps support overall wellbeing
At HCML, our data shows a strong correlation between ill health and personal risks such as inactivity, excess weight, poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, and negative attitudes and beliefs. 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.
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 from developing that may otherwise need more clinical intervention. Of particular interest is the impact of attitudes to health conditions, including limiting fears, where the person with the condition believes, perhaps mistakenly, that their condition prevents them from being able to do certain things. For MSK issues, 58 per cent of users accessing our services presented limiting fears and attitudes to their condition, as did 49 per cent of those with mental health issues.
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 help 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.
EAPs may provide help for our younger workforce as well as take the strain off an already overstretched NHS, whilst helping organisations to retain their employees. Our working lives are getting longer and the act of recruiting and retaining talent is becoming more competitive. Younger employees tend to place more weight on prospective employers’ benefits when choosing a company to work for, particularly those that emphasise 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.