Aon advises employers to be forewarned and prepared for psychological distress in employees

Aon, a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions (NYSE: AON), is advising employers to be ‘forewarned and prepared’ about the emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown on their employees.

One of its health and wellbeing experts says employers should be ready to manage any increases in psychological distress among their workforce – including potential suicide.

Charles Alberts, head of health management at Aon, in support of World Suicide Prevention Day, organised by the International Association for Suicide Prevention, said:

“Mental health issues were on the rise long before COVID-19, but emotional and psychological impacts of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown have taken their toll on the nation’s mental health. There are a multitude of reports of the issues, not least the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicting back in 2012 that depression would be the leading cause of disability and ill health by 20301 and just in the last few days the Office of National Statistics announcing a significant rise in suicide rates.

“The pandemic has presented additional challenges to many of us – dramatic life changes, isolation, increased anxiety, financial concerns, health worries, caring responsibilities, to name a few. Not all of these, however, will be obvious to employers as there may not be signs of increased psychological distress right away, especially if people are working remotely.

“Most situations won’t lead to suicide, but if there was ever a time for employers to take proactive action, that time is now. Suicide has a devastating impact on everyone it touches. Not just the individual’s family and friends, but co-workers, too. All employers have a vital role to play in being alert to the mental wellbeing of their employees: being proactive to notice any behaviour changes and providing the right kind of support for those struggling.”

How employers can help employees living with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts

Alberts says employers can support their employees by focusing on three key areas: workplace culture, training (such as mental health first aid) and communicating relevant benefits and support services.

The right workplace culture is important

Employers need to create a good work environment that destigmatises mental health issues so people feel it’s OK to ask for help if they’re struggling.

This long-term approach can’t be changed overnight, yet a working environment that values employees and their families, where line managers are equipped with the right knowledge and skills, employees support each other and know where to go for help is ideal. It’s recommended that senior management are included in health and wellbeing initiatives as much as possible as they can set the cultural tone for the entire organisation.

Mental health training and education for all employees

Aon recommends mental health training and education for all employees to cover at least basic knowledge of mental health, as well as general suicide prevention awareness, with more focused training for those volunteering in roles such as mental health first aiders and suicide prevention first aiders.

Line managers and those trained in voluntary roles have a big role to play in any workplace suicide prevention initiative as they can be one of the first to identify any behaviour changes or warning signs. However, with many people still working remotely, there aren’t quite as many in-person social interactions as before so proactiveness is key, line managers engaging in regular dialogue with their team members, and making sure people know about the mental health first aiders’ roles and how to contact them.

Consistent and accessible communication is essential

Effective communication and a consistent, accessible approach are necessary to signpost health and wellbeing benefits and services available. Employers and HR must remind colleagues what’s on offer, both internally and externally, whether it’s access to an EAP or support through a PMI provider, helpline numbers to ring, a recommendation of relevant charities or signposting to workplace mental health first aiders.

It’s recommended that all information is distilled into easily accessible, visual information with practical reminders throughout the year. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are valuable resources and provide round-the-clock confidential support especially for those in crisis. It’s important to promote them in very practical ways, perhaps listing typical problems employees might be struggling with and that EAPs can help. ‘Are you struggling with X, Y or Z? Your EAP can help.’ It’s also important to communicate long-term health and wellbeing initiatives which address mental health all year round, not just on one or two key awareness days. This can reinforce messages of where employees can go to for help and support, alongside reminders of what’s coming up next in the workplace health and wellbeing programme.

Charles Alberts summarised:

“Even with initiatives and preventative measures, suicide is a reality that employers may encounter. However, the role employers, line managers and volunteers can play should not be underestimated. In many cases, workplace support can and does save lives. “Suicide is the extreme end of the mental health spectrum, but every suicide can be prevented. No life should be lost to suicide. The health and wellbeing measures employers put in today could save lives tomorrow.”

More information can be found here.