Why health and happiness matter at work

What employers must do to look after their staff.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Dr Peter Mills, medical director of Cigna, discusses the importance of employees’ mental wellbeing...  

What are the top stress triggers for poor mental health in the workplace?

Politically and economically, we’re living in very insecure times, and there’s a lot of uncertainty over personal security and safety that’s causing people major anxieties and unease. Across the board we’ve seen
an increase in people reporting high levels of stress. Mental health problems are reaching staggering levels.
In both the public and private sector, people are trying to do more with less, and heavy workloads, high pressure and high demands placed on employees are triggering stresses at work.

Cigna’s annual 360 wellbeing survey, which this year had 13,200 respondents across 22 markets, shows that people’s concerns about personal health and finances can often have a major impact at home and in the workplace, with 18 per cent of UK respondents citing personal health concerns as their top stress trigger, closely followed by personal finance concerns (15 per cent).

We’ve found that women are reporting higher levels of stress than men, with a massive 79 per cent of working women reporting stress compared to 66 per cent of men. There could be dual forces at play here – not only are women still more likely to take on more unpaid domestic work and childcare responsibilities, but amongst men, despite the progress in recent years, there’s still more of a stigma attached to reporting mental health problems. It’s still seen as a sign of weakness, and that’s a misconception that’s more prevalent amongst men. Women appear to be far more in touch with their psychological health needs than men.

How can we get better at recognising signs of poor mental health?

People’s reactions to psychological stress are varied. Some people get very visibly angry, sad, and emotional, and others use unhealthy crutches like alcohol and tobacco. The key thing is to try and foster an open culture, where it’s OK – even encouraged – to talk about mental health and stress in the workplace. It’s far better from both an employee’s and employer’s perspective, to address these issues and deal with them early on, before situations escalate into causing prolonged absences, lower productivity or periods of medical leave. It’s important to have a network of individuals in an organisation that know a bit and who can spot things, whether they’re recognised mental health first aiders or managers who know their employees well and understand when something is wrong. Intelligent job design – implementing flexible hours and ergonomic working environments – as well as simply giving recognition and showing appreciation for work can also help mental wellbeing in the workplace.

What are some of the common misconceptions around mental health?

Nowadays mental health is very much in the public domain. High-profile people are prepared to speak openly, and in public, about their psychological wellbeing, and so the whole macho culture of mental health issues being a result of failure, or an inability to cope with the job, is, thankfully, beginning to diminish in business and the workplace. In certain sectors, such as financial services, which are often male-dominated, there is still an enduring competitive culture where the old mental health misconceptions are quite prevalent.

But the best way of dealing with mental health problems is to talk about them. Colleagues, whether they are in senior management or working at any other level of a company, need to be approachable, inclusive and non-judgemental. People should get to know their colleagues to a level where they can see the signs.

How can workplace wellness programmes help reduce stress?

In the last 20 years, employers have got a lot better at knowing that employee wellbeing is part of their remit. There used to be a reluctance to accept that employee health, especially mental health, was their responsibility. That’s changed as people have become more open about their own mental wellbeing and as the scale of the mental health problems facing society have become more evident. But there’s a lot more that can be done. Relatively simple workplace wellness programmes can massively improve mental wellbeing amongst a workforce. For less serious problems, self help and online and telehelp are appropriate.

Through our emotional wellbeing pathway, Cigna offers online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) platforms that use an evidence-based and trusted approach to dealing with a range of problems. Our Living Life to the Full resource is free and accessible to all, and its courses help users find solutions to stress and anxiety.

Cigna isn’t just a health insurance provider – it is a health service company that helps clients optimise the service they give to employees. We offer a whole continuum of tailored advice, preventative pathways and consultations, rather than just a simple insurance model.

How does Cigna support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)?

With an ageing population and a health service that’s struggling like never before, there’s a growing demand for health insurance in the UK. The NHS is a fantastic institution. There’s not much else like it in the world. But if there are patient needs that aren’t so acute – especially mental health needs – the service is stretched to provide all but
the most urgent care. Earlier signs of mental health problems are going unnoticed and untreated, leading to bigger problems down the line. Many employers are thinking they need something extra, and the services we provide like telehealth and online self-help are ideal for tech-savvy generations who expect flexibility.

You can call us directly and speak to a nurse rather than going to a GP to get referred. There’s self-help, online training, digital wellness programmes and online CBT available alongside the option of face to face contact, so we take a very holistic approach.

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, the earlier problems are detected the better. Prevention is better than reaction – and so catching things early rather than allowing issues to snowball has less impact on you and your employer.