Putting people first

Why a happy and healthy workforce is a productive one.

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David Hynam, CEO of Bupa UK, discusses why ensuring better mental health in the workplace should be a cross-organisational priority...

How important is a workforce’s mental health in terms of a company’s performance?

With one in six people in the workplace experiencing a mental health challenge, it’s never been more important for businesses to address mental health. The level of visibility and attention this issue is getting has totally changed. What was once a sideline conversation now has a prominent place in many board-level discussions.

In addition to the human cost, organisations are seeing the effect that poor mental health has on their overall productivity and performance. Every year, around 70m working days are lost due to mental health issues, costing employers between £30bn and £40bn – that’s roughly £1,000 per employee every year.

As business leaders we need to recognise the importance of creating an environment where people can thrive and be their best at work. We all increasingly expect our employers to play an active role in our mental wellbeing. In our insurance business, the percentage of employees from our corporate customers that we support for mental health issues has more than doubled over the last decade – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as we know many people don’t seek help.

How important is creating the right culture when it comes to mental health?

It’s really important that senior leaders create workplaces where people feel they can be open about mental health challenges they might be facing. The change needs to come from the top.

At Bupa we talk regularly and openly about mental health at all levels. Encouraging teams to get to know each other better is vital. People managers play a hugely important role in creating a supportive environment and that starts by building trust – the better you know someone, the more likely you are to be able to spot the signs that someone might be struggling.

Our approach broadly focuses on four aspects: awareness (being familiar with the signs of a mental health problem and on the lookout for them); a supportive workplace (fostering close relationships); open conversations (encouraging people to speak out if they need help); and providing support (we have a dedicated mental health hub for our people, access to confidential counselling services and clinical support). We have also trained up many of our senior executives to be mental health first aiders.

Training people, particularly line managers, to be able to spot the onset of mental health problems is a really important step. But it’s equally important to remember that managers need support too – their role is not to be a counsellor but to support their team to get help if they need it.

Last year we launched Be You at Bupa – our commitment to empower our people to be their true selves at work.I want Bupa to be the most inclusive place that it can be. I don’t want our people living with the pressure of trying to fit into an organisation, being something that they are not.

All four of our businesses (Care Services, Insurance, Dental Care and Health Services) are people businesses. We are absolutely nothing without our brilliant teams, so supporting them to thrive at work is everything. I was really proud that Bupa was recently recognised by LinkedIn as one of the top five places to work in the UK.

Preventing poor mental health seems an obvious ideal – have you seen a change in the type and level of support companies are looking for?

It is very clear that businesses believe that supporting mental health is a major challenge, and more and more of our corporate customers are asking for our help.

Last year we launched our Business Mental Health Advantage as a response to this increasing demand. Our service offers the most extensive mental health cover for business customers and their employees, helping businesses to support colleagues with long-term mental health issues. It also covers conditions which typically have been excluded such as alcohol dependency, drug abuse and self-harm. A number of our corporate customers are also asking us to provide additional on-site services, so their people can have free, confidential access to psychological support from trained professionals.

Another change we’ve seen is that our corporate customers are not just looking for help for themselves, they’re looking for guidance for their families and children. They really value the support we can provide in signposting what help is available to them both in and outside work.

What role can government play?

The government can play a role in defining best practice and, more importantly helping businesses access the expertise and services they need to support the mental wellbeing of their employees. We know that access to mental health support continues to be a growing priority for many businesses, both large and small. For many, health insurance is an effective way to support both the mental as well as physical health of their people.

Unfortunately, the doubling of the tax rate on insurance premiums, including health insurance, from six per cent to 12 per cent over recent years, just makes it more expensive for businesses to provide support to their employees – and, for some, makes it an expense too far. If the government is serious about helping businesses do more to support the physical and mental health of their employees, looking at the tax environment – how they can encourage more businesses, both large and small – to support their people’s health, would be a positive step.