Blog by Stephanie Schreiber, Wellbeing Adviser at Business in the Community, on her frustrations over negative perceptions of the BBC's Employee Assistance Programme.
As the Christmas break approaches, stress levels for many of us will be high. For me, it is a case of trying to finish off that last piece of work, juggling childcare, card writing, and present buying-wrapping mayhem all take priority over much needed sleep before the big day. For others in less fortunate circumstances, Christmas can be a time of real hardship. Last year, the Samaritans reported that nearly a quarter (23.6%) of people surveyed felt worse at Christmas and 1 in 6 (17.3%) said it’s the loneliest time of year.
So, when City A.M. reported this week on freedom of information request that the BBC has spent £815,000 since 2010 on its Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), I was dismayed at the focus of the story. It honed in on the fact that the license-fee is being used to provide counselling staff for stress, bullying and harassment – with an implication that such spend is questionable. The fact that this is a news angle, and it’s certainly not for the first time in our media, says more about the way we as a society view emotional and mental health in the workplace than it does about the BBC.
In fact, EAPs are commonplace, with 47% of employees having access to such a scheme. They offer support for employees who would like assistance on issues inside and outside work - such as relationships, finance, legal advice, childcare/eldercare, mental health, as well as workplace issues. However, EAP utilisation remains low due to poor promotion and understanding of what they can offer. Our own Mental Health at Work Report found that only 23% of employees thought they had access to an EAP, and only 2% had used it for support when they most recently experienced symptoms of poor mental health, although 36% said they would like access to one.
New research from Lancaster University’s The Work Foundation reveals there is ongoing stigma in the workplace around EAPs, with many viewing EAPs as geared solely at counselling for those with mental health issues. Only last month, Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, President of the CIPD, wrote about the woeful under-utilisation of EAPs despite their vast potential to improve employee wellbeing if they are promoted in a more proactive way, giving staff access to help before they reach crisis point. Business in the Community agrees - a preventative approach, with stronger partnerships between employers and EAPs would positively impact workplace wellbeing, alongside empowering staff to look after their physical, social, and mental wellbeing. Our own Public Reporting Guidelines on Employee Wellbeing and Engagement recommend that organisations promote and report the work they are doing on wellbeing, including EAP provision and utilisation rates. Reporting remains thin on the ground, but we hope more organisations will follow the example of leading companies like BT, which shares the positive impact of its investment in EAP and wider wellbeing strategies.
The call to actions we make of employers in our 2016 Mental Health at Work report is a three-step process for employers to create open, supportive cultures around mental health. We ask employers to Talk, Train, and Take action on mental health, and they can use their EAP data to better understand barriers in their workplace as well as the external factors that may be contributing to poor mental health for staff. Providing an EAP and strategically using its data is part of a proactive and robust approach to employee wellbeing, so that an employer can create healthier cultures and deliver tailored support.
It makes sense for employers to commit to this issue, given that mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, with more than 15 million absence days attributed to stress, anxiety and depression in 2013, and presenteeism from mental ill health alone has been calculated to cost the UK economy £15.1 billion per annum.
The BBC itself demonstrates good practice in publishing its own staff resource pages around managing stress and pressure at work – something many employers can learn from.
If you or someone you know needs support, consider calling your EAP – most offer 24/7 support, and many are open to family members.