The discussion around mental health in the workplace has gathered momentum. In the UK, an independent review, Thriving at Work, published last year, demonstrated the extent of the problem. It argued that all employers should commit to six core standards to tackle mental health. This included having a plan in place to deal with the issue, increasing awareness among the workforce, stipulating line management responsibilities and routinely monitoring employees’ mental health and wellbeing. In effect, the report called for more mental health funding and outlined the need for corporates to take more responsibility.
A major problem
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is a leading cause of disability, with 350 million people suffering globally. A 2016 WHO-led study, Out of The Shadows: Making Mental Health A Global Development Priority, also estimates that a massive US$1 trillion each year is lost in productivity due to factors associated with mental health. Like many other organisations, WHO is keen to ensure employers understand that addressing mental health disorders and taking a positive stance when it comes to health and wellbeing at work will help to increase productivity.
The WHO data is backed up by researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) which analysed data from a survey of 8,000 employees across eight countries around the world. It showed that depression is collectively costing the nations of Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa and the US more than $246 billion a year. Employers are recognising the need to support employees, and the insurance industry is taking steps to include benefits that provide support for mental health and employee wellbeing. Services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and telemedicine providing remote access to medical care are two ways that insurers can help. EAPs certainly provide the independent advice and counselling service 24/7 that can be useful for a mobile workforce. But is this enough, especially for globally mobile employees at high risk of suffering stress and anxieties because of the added pressures of moving abroad to work? From getting to grips with new cultures, or settling into a different office environment, each step can be stressful and made worse if family is involved.
While IPMI providers currently offer a degree of support via EAP counselling or access to medical care through irtual doctors, the industry could be more proactive
A typical scenario that our EAP provider has dealt with is in supporting a single globally mobile executive who moves to Zurich into a small temporary apartment. Although excited by the opportunity, the executive must deal with the move away from family and exposure to a different language. Finding that building a network
of friends isn’t easy, loneliness quickly becomes an issue. To avoid being alone, the executive stays longer in the office, adding to their tiredness and irritability. Unhappiness and depression soon sets in. The executive’s employer, being mindful of changes in character, recommends that the executive speaks to the EAP counsellor. The counsellor highlights several social events and recommends an intensive language course along with a local social group for expats. Three weeks later, the executive’s social life has improved, and they become more confident as they begin to be able to converse in the local language. As demonstrated by this example, EAP services can offer practical solutions as well as a supportive listening service, helping to avoid situations that can easily escalate to cause depression and stress.
Recognising the issue
Like employers, international health insurers understand that overseas workers need emotional as well as physical support. And this can be as relevant to those based in urban centres as workers in remote areas. While IPMI providers currently offer a degree of support via EAP counselling or access to medical care through irtual doctors, the industry could be more proactive. Awareness is a good starting point with mental health in the workplace, largely ignored compared to physical health issues. Insurers can do more by providing best practice information in easily digestible formats to share with employees; helping them to recognise symptoms
they, or their colleagues, may have. The industry can also be more active in helping their corporate customers to establish and monitor programmes that identify early signs of mental health issues and support those affected. Such programmes could be structured to address working environments, preventative care where an early onset of symptoms is identified, and support procedures for those with established mental health issues. Even the introduction of simple tests has the potential to make a tangible difference. Health risk assessments, for example, could be re-engineered to more actively identify mental problems as well as physical issues.
Both domestic and international health insurers have an important part to play in helping prevent mental health from affecting productivity at work and costing billions globally. EAPs and similar services are a start, but the more the industry can work with employers, encourage the debate globally and provide innovative services, the more likely we are to reduce what is effectively a world epidemic.