Mental health in the workplace: are older employees being left behind?

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Campaigns led by ambassadors from royalty, sport and television, have given mental health the high-profile it deserves. But has the message hit the workplace? 

NB: this article was written before FirstCare rebranded to GoodShape on 30.10.21

While people are undoubtedly gaining confidence in talking about anxiety and depression, it seems that this isn’t the case for every age group. A study last month by BUPA* found that older employees tend to wait longer to seek mental health support, putting them at risk of developing more serious problems.

Despite two-thirds of over-55s experiencing mental ill health symptoms, workers in this age group were found to wait an average of 54 days before getting advice. The survey also revealed that a fifth of over-55s felt it was inappropriate to discuss mental health concerns at work, despite two-thirds of organisations making the issue a priority.

These figures are borne out by FirstCare’s own absence management data, which shows older workers bucking a national trend.

In 2018 mental health was the number one reason for absence across our client base, with businesses losing 1.6 days per employee on average. This represents a staggering 143% increase in mental health-related absence over the last 10 years.

And yet for older employees the trend has remained surprisingly and consistently low. The average number of days lost per employee in the over-60s age group is just 0.4 – 75% lower than for workers aged 40-50.

We’ve also identified another interesting pattern. While concern about young people’s mental health continues to rise, our data shows that under-20s are the least likely to be absent from work for mental health reasons.

Could this mean that younger employees are seeking the help that they need, and benefiting from early intervention which helps them to stay at work? Or is the stigma of talking about mental health affecting our youngest and oldest employees equally?

It’s a complex picture, but one thing is clear. Prioritising staff wellbeing and creating a culture that safeguards mental health regardless of age is good for business. Mental health-related absence is typically long term or recurring and notoriously costly and difficult to control. Introducing systems that spot the early signs and building a culture that actively supports mental health in the workplace, are vital preventative steps.

FirstCare works with more than 100 organisations across the UK, helping them to prioritise and manage staff wellbeing. Our absence management service includes a nurse-led triage system which gives employees 24/7 access to professional medical advice. Speaking to an independent nurse outside of the workplace can help staff to feel more comfortable in talking about mental health problems. It also ensures that any early warning signs can be identified, and the right support and advice given quickly.

By combining this nurse-led support with real-time absence data, we help employers to identify sickness trends, and put steps in place to mitigate them, reducing costs and maintaining productivity while nurturing employee wellbeing.

We’ve used this approach to significantly reduce mental health-related absence in many organisations, particularly in the public sector. Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council saw a dramatic 64% reduction by using FirstCare’s Absence Management Service.

Employers can take other positive steps to create a culture that positively supports staff wellbeing and encourages open discussion about mental health issues. Helping employees to feel that they can equally access support, regardless of their age or pay grade, is key.

The BUPA study revealed that many older employees felt that awareness campaigns around mental health at work were aimed at younger employees, and not relevant to them. Older workers were also unaware that the early symptoms of mental health issues – problems sleeping, low mood and feelings of helplessness – could indicate a more serious problem. Less than one in three felt they had the knowledge to confidently recognise conditions like depression and anxiety.

It’s clear that while awareness of mental health issues is improving, more needs to be done to help employees of every age group feel confident in recognising problems and seeking the support they need. Having an effective absence management system, which provides access to quick and independent medical advice, can really encourage this.

*Bupa's research was conducted among 2,152 UK adults (1,220 of whom are working) by Opinium Research between 19 and 22 March 2019.

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