The Covid crisis has underlined how important it is for employers, insurers and wellbeing providers to provide effective services to support employees’ mental health.
In recent years campaigns run by charities such as Mind, and Heads Together have focused on providing effective support for mental health within the workplace, and reducing the stigma around these conditions.
This is reflected in the propositions now offered by the majority of group risk insurers, as well as health insurers and cash plan providers, with conditions such as stress and anxiety covered under group income protection policies. Many insurers also offer a range of valued-added support services that are focused on providing targeted support and early intervention for a range of mental health conditions.
As a consequence the industry has been well placed to provide an effective safety net during the recent crisis — and it is anticipated that there will continue to be an increased demand for these services over the next few years. Group Risk Development (Grid) spokesperson Katharine Moxham says: “Group risk providers have long understood the importance of supporting mental health in the workplace and actively make help and resources available to employees via the embedded services that come with group risk products purchases by their employer.”
Historically one of the main problems faced by employees is accessing help for mental health conditions — be it anxiety, stress, depression or help with various addictions. Although a range of support services and therapies can be accessed via the NHS, waiting times can be considerable, and funding support privately can be prohibitively expensive.
The difficulties in accessing these services have been exacerbated by the 2019 pandemic with the withdrawal of many face-to-face primary healthcare services.
At the same time, early indications suggest that a rising number of people are experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of Covid, with financial difficulties, the stress of juggling childcare and employment and far less social interaction, with people forced to work from home all contributing to this to these problems.
This is on top of the very real health worries people have about Covid-19, and of course difficulties faced by those who have lost close family or friends to the disease.
As a result more people are turning to their employer for support with these issues. Moxham says research indicates employers are becoming more comfortable with taking on this role. Research by Grid found 49 per cent of employees felt it was the employers ‘responsibility’ to provide this support. Surprisingly an higher percentage of employers agreed — with 75 per cent stating it was their responsibility to support staff with their mental wellbeing.
This isn’t an entirely altruistic move. Most forward-looking employers understand that providing this vital support means a healthier, happier and more productive workforce. This too is borne out in the recent Grid research, with more than eight out of 10 employers (81 per cent) believing it is good for business to offer employee benefits that support mental wellbeing.
LEBC public policy and communications director Kay Ingram says employee benefit propositions can help employers provide effective support.
She says: “Both group risk and healthcare providers have been expanding services to help mitigate mental health risks via their product offering. “There has been a marked increase in providers addressing conditions such as anxiety and depressions and the still very taboo subject of suicide.”
Ingram points out that there are now an extensive range of support services available via these propositions. In many cases these have been extended during 2019, to provide additional remote support services to employees during the coronavirus pandemic, typically at no additional cost to the employer, or employee.
Services available include virtual GPs, access to counselling and talking therapies, employee assistance programmes, mental health apps as well as mental health first aid training for managers in the workplace, so problems can be identified and address at an early stage.
This is on top of the range of diet, exercise and healthy eating programmes, as well as targeted help designed to reduce alcohol consumption or stop smoking, all of which can be part of a more holistic mental health programme. Ingram says: “As the sector is awash with various providers and products it is imperative that employers seek support from benefit consultants to help them navigate the choices on offer.”
This can help ensure the widest range of mental health services are available without unnecessary duplications.
Aon head of health management Charles Alberts adds that group risk providers are becoming increasingly creative with their approaches to prevention, rather than simply responding to problems. He says: “This is aimed at improving health and wellbeing of the wider employee base and this has become a differentiator for the leading providers.”
He adds: “Newer entrants are challenging the status quo and driving innovation and value. We see this as having a positive impact on the industry.”
Mental health claims
Employee benefit consultants point out that insurers have seen a marked increase in the number of claims for mental health conditions under group income protection policies.
Ingram says: “Anxiety related claims in particular have risen sharply which is no doubt linked to the Covid-19 situation.”
“We have also noticed a rise in claims for digestive diseases, which can often be a symptom of an underlying mental health conditions, which may not have been diagnosed.” This highlights how mental and physical health are not separate entities, but are frequently interlinked, although they are often treated as separate specialisms within healthcare services.
Towergate Health & Protection distribution director Brett Hill agrees that this year has seen rising numbers of anxiety cases. This, he says, has ben reflected in the steady increase in EAP usage, as well via insurance claims.
He says there was a particular uptick in cases during the late summer and in autumn. “This coincided with a gradual return to the workplace, with increased anxiety around workplace safety, the use of public transport and whether colleagues are adhering to social distancing outside of work, potentially putting themselves and others at risk.”
He adds that there have also been increases cases of anxiety among those who continue to work from home. “Feelings of isolation and low mood have seen an increase, as what were once short-term working arrangements have begun to feel like ‘groundhog day’ for many and the days have shortened leaving little opportunity to get out of the house during the working week.”
Alberts points out that there is extensive evidence to suggest that the Covid pandemic has led to increased incidences of anxiety, depression and stress.
He says: “Mental health problems were already becoming increasingly common in the workplace, with 52 per cent of employees saying they had experienced poor mental health whilst at their current employer, according to recent Mind research. “The Office of National Statistics reported that the number of people suffering from depression had almost doubled during the pandemic.”
This research found that between July 2019 and March 2020 around one in 10 people (9.7 per cent) reported having depression. During June 2020 this figure had risen to almost one in five (19.2 per cent).
Aon points out that this sudden jump in cases comes on the back of a significant increase in mental health problems in recent years. Mind figures show that the number of people with common mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) has risen 20 per cent between 1993 and 2014.
There are various causes cited for this jump in cases. In some ways increased awareness of mental health conditions and reducing the stigma associated with these conditions has encouraged more people to seek help for these problems.
But there are also concerns that the changing nature of work, and increased work-related stress may be contributing to this growing epidemic. Alberts says: “Work-related stress, depression or anxiety is the number one case of work-related ill health and impacted 602,000 workers in 2018/19 according to government figures.”
This only highlights the important role employers have to play in tackling this problem effectively he says.
While the range of support services have mushroomed, this doesn’t always translate into fewer mental health problems in the workplace.
Aon principal Mark Witte says: “Simply having access to a wide range of support and services is, in itself insufficient to drive meaningful change.”
One of the main issues faced is that all too often employees simply do not know what services are available. Consultants have a key role to play in highlighting the options available and then working with clients to ensure better engagement levels. This can be an even bigger challenge when much of the workforce is displaced and working from home.
Witte says there is a need for businesses to create more ‘resilient workforces’ by creating an environment at work where people can better adapt to adverse situations, manage stress and retain motivation – challenges which he says have only been amplified by the current situation. Witte adds: “Aon’s view is that mental health and in particular work-related mental health issues will continue to present a significant challenge of employees and employers alike and accelerated by the ongoing pandemic must be addressed as a business critical issue.
“The group risk industry has responded well to support clients with added value services during this most difficult period, but the challenge extends beyond the provision of services alone.”
He says to rebuild and hopefully thrive in the future businesses will also need to ensure three key things: benefit cost bases remain sustainable and represent value; action taken is strategic and driven by data and real insight; and that employees actively understand and engage with the solutions and services being made available.
Mental health has risen up the corporate agenda in recent years. The group risk industry has responded by providing a wider range of more effective services. With demand on these services likely to increase in future, there will be a greater need to assess the effectiveness of these various options in future, to ensure maximum benefit for both employers and employees.