Martin Edwards: All employers should help staff with mental health problems

We set up an employee assistance programme, and every charity leader should consider doing so

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The recent disclosure by the actor Christopher Eccleston that he has had anorexia reminded me of my own article in Third Sector a few years ago in which I said that I had suffered from it too, including a period when I was a student.

Like Eccleston’s statement, it garnered a mostly positive response at the time, and it’s good to acknowledge that anorexia is neither a condition exclusive to girls, nor one that is really about food. It is a condition of the mind that can stem from disturbances or a feeling of loss of control in fundamental areas of one’s life.

Yet I was struck by the recent high-profile cases of students taking their own lives at university. These tragedies had nothing to do with anorexia so far as I am aware, but everything to do with mental illness and the inadequate response of the authorities to the warning signs.

Stories of students waiting two months for mental health referrals did not surprise me, nor of tutors being uninterested in their students’ wellbeing. Tragic consequences followed. It is a national disgrace that such attitudes persist.

Great strides have been made in recent years in talking about mental health, but much more remains to be done. There is too much ignorance in many places of work or study, and I fear that there are too many gaps in the state’s care system, too few beds in specialist units and unsatisfactory referral times for counselling are still common.

If I applied for a job now and declared that my eating disorder had returned with a vengeance, or that I was suffering from depression even if it did not noticeably affect my work output, would I be given a fair chance? I am not at all sure.

Employers and universities are not responsible for all aspects of their employees’ or students’ wellbeing, but there is a duty of care to do all that we reasonably can.

One of the first things I did on becoming chief executive of Julia’s House more than a decade ago was to recommend to the trustees that we fund an employee assistance programme: a confidential counselling and specialist information helpline for staff and their immediate families. It isn’t perfect or the whole solution, but it is open 24/7 and 365 days of the year. And although I never get to know who has used it – quite rightly – I know that it is well used. I personally have found it to be very helpful and the counselling, which is also offered face to face, is prompt, local and of high quality.

This is far preferable to waiting to see a GP, then waiting much longer for a counselling referral. It also costs us less than £20 per employee per year. This begs a bloody obvious question: why on earth don’t more employers invest in staff wellbeing by having employee assistance programmes?

Even if they looked at it from a coldly transactional cost-benefit viewpoint, every employer should want to reduce staff sickness and improve people’s productivity at work.

Occupational health services can also support staff in some circumstances. Although they can still be perceived as the employer’s tool, in practice they are swift and supportive services for staff, and I have encouraged HR or line managers to be prompt in recommending them to some staff.

As a leader, I can’t imagine anyone who wants delays in mental health support for their colleagues or to risk a tragedy among their staff.

Don’t leave yourself with any regrets. Regrets are utterly useless to bereaved relatives. So what are you going to do about it today?

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, which runs children's hospices in Wiltshire and Dorset

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