One in four people1 in the UK will have a mental health challenge at some point, and the influence of the workplace as a contributing force of stress cannot be ignored. While Mental Health Awareness month in May provides a welcome platform to discuss the topic openly and candidly, it also brings into focus some of the systemic barriers to progress.

With a UK health system facing pressure to deliver increasingly more with less, the time for innovation is now. Employees with mental health needs simply must be able to access primary care services quickly. And that means more organisations adopting employee assistance programmes (EAP) that provide access to general practitioners (GPs).

Capacity and efficiency

Whether work is the root of the mental health issue or aggravating it, employers have a legal responsibility to their employees. As well as the personal impact on people, families and communities, poor mental health costs a significant amount to the UK economy. When we think of lost productivity, absenteeism, and staff turnover, mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9 billion per year2 (five percent of UK GDP in 2019).

I was a proud employee of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) for many years, but there’s an obvious truth that warrants urgent attention. A worrying 40 percent3 of primary care needs relate to mental health, yet waiting times are long, and the post-Pandemic backlog continues to delay care provision. GPs are hard to access. A survey by Unum4 reveals that the equivalent of 201 million hours were taken by employees visiting the GP and other health professionals, with the average full-time worker spending 8.3 hours attending appointments in 2020. The average employee made up to 3.1 visits to their GP and 1.7 visits to specialists, of which 2.5 hours were taken as paid sick leave.

Of the 2,000 UK workers who responded to the poll, 60 percent said they found taking time off for these appointments ‘stressful’, while 25 percent said they had to cancel an appointment due to personal issues or their workload being too high.

Employees being off sick is not only costing UK businesses an average of £6725 per week, but in some cases can lead to employees’ health issues escalating.

With a system struggling to keep pace with changing healthcare needs – from chronic illnesses to mental health – a new model is needed which provides employees with access to primary care. After all, enabling the appropriate support for employees in the workplace, is inextricably linked to the broader access to efficient care for everyone. Reducing the waiting times for patients with all health needs, releases the pressure valve.

Health equity

We can look to other parts of Europe for inspiration. In countries such as Sweden for example, there is a proven model for the navigation of complex and fragmented health systems to build partnerships across public and private sectors. There, the combination of scalable technology with clinical expertise to address a greater share of care needs is commonplace. Joining the dots between primary and secondary care, private and public partnerships are empowering all healthcare system stakeholders to resolve these issues at scale, and in time.

Already available in the UK, employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are a workplace benefit that provides support services, and resources to employees to help them manage personal or work-related issues affecting their wellbeing and productivity. Being adopted by human resources (HR) teams, leadership, employee wellness committees, occupational health, safety professionals, and employee representatives alike, the service is delivered by a digital platform. Employees simply receive an email containing a voucher code to be redeemed for same-day access to a GP consultation covered by their employer.

Employees understand the value that a digital GP service can deliver. Benefits can include convenient hours and services that are built around the patient experience. Whilst the Livi service is App-based, continuity of care is assured, as the clinicians have access to employees’ NHS care records which are updated post consultation. Any resulting prescriptions are sent instantly to an employee’s preferred pharmacy after the consultation. With extensive opening hours, employees need not feel under time pressure and can avoid stresses and strains of the 8am scramble. The digital-first approach also saves valuable time and frees-up capacity for in-person appointments.

In my experience, employee assistance programmes can help organisations to support team members as part of a people-first company culture. After all, the best place to start building up your business is from the inside, with the people who work there. So, if we assume that employee health and wellbeing is an intrinsic cog in the running of any successful company, then to me, it follows that an employee assistance programme that fully integrates primary care is what keeps the cogs synchronised. By providing the access to GPs that employees both want and need, is an effective business strategy that also serves to foster both trust and respect.

Engagement and retention

According to a report by Gallup6, the UK has the most disengaged employees in Europe. This can be detrimental to an organisation for several reasons ranging from quality of work, competitive edge, costs, and workplace culture. The EAPs go some way to addressing this. In a study7 by the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) 80 percent of employees indicated that EAPs were important to their overall satisfaction with their employer.

Employee productivity is positively impacted too. A study8 conducted by the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) found that employees who received treatment through an EAP experienced a 34 percent increase in productivity. Another report9 by the UK EAPA shows that organisations with an effective EAP experience an average of 30 percent decrease in absenteeism and a 66 percent decrease in accidents, which is good news for everyone.

While prioritising good mental health in the workplace is commendable, businesses are compelled to balance this with maintaining their bottom line and ensuring profitability. They must reconcile employee needs and regulatory requirements with the need to have their human resources at work and being as productive as possible to optimise profits. It is reassuring then, that the Institute of Directors reported10 that for every £1 invested in EAPs, companies can expect a return on investment of £7.70 due to reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity.

Opening the door

The landscape of corporate responsibility concerning employee mental health and overall wellbeing is intricate, yet I find encouragement in the increasing number of organisations committed to prioritising this vital aspect. As a medical professional, I’ve consistently advocated for an inclusive approach, and this also needs to be adopted within the workplace. With the advent of advanced technologies, collaborative partnerships, and initiatives like EAPs that offer primary care access, the UK is poised to significantly enhance access to health support within the workplace. This marks a crucial step forward in fostering a culture of compassion and support for all employees.

 

References

  1. https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/mental-health.htm
  2. https://www.england.nhs.uk/aac/wp-content/uploads/sites/50/2022/09/B1482_research-demand-signalling-national-mental-health-programme_september-2022.pdf
  3. https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/40-of-all-gp-appointments-about-mental-health/
  4. https://www.activequote.com/articles/200m-working-hours-lost-to-health-appointments/
  5. https://www.forbes.com/uk/advisor/business/average-uk-salary-by-age/
  6. https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/uk-employee-engagement-gallup-2023/
  7. https://www.cipd.org/globalassets/media/knowledge/knowledge-hub/reports/attitudes-to-employability-and-talent_2016_tcm18-14261.pdf
  8. https://www.eapa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/UK-EAPA-Reseach-Report-The-evolution-of-employee-assistance-FINAL.pdf
  9. https://www.eapa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/UK-EAPA-Research-Project-Phase-1-Report-December-2016.pdf
  10. https://www.iod.com/resources/mental-health/employee-assistance-programmes-and-mental-health/#:~:text=The%20UK%20Employee%20Assistance%20Professionals%20Association%20has%20an%20obvious%20interest,return%20on%20investment%20of%20%C2%A3
Tom Davis
Tom Davis
UK Medical Director at Livi | + posts

Tom Davis joined Europe’s largest digital-first healthcare provider, Livi as UK Medical Director in spring 2024 where he works with NHS services, private health insurers and employers in the UK to support them in meeting patient demand and enhancing care journeys. A qualified GP with leadership, governance, and management skills, he brings extensive experience of board level medical director and executive director roles across several healthcare sectors.