A focus on mental health outcomes equates to better financial returns

The bold statement highlighted in this article's heading represented a key finding in recent analysis of FTSE 100 annual reports. Unfortunately, the article goes on to state that three quarters of FTSE 100 companies did not mention mental health at all.

It's telling that even after all the reporting and awareness raising on this subject, still 3 in 5 employees (60%) experience mental health issues because of work, and less than a quarter (24%) of line managers have received any training in mental health, according to Business in the Community. 

All too often, the sticking point revolves around the inability of companies to put in place much needed training and support services due to issues surrounding lack of return on investment (ROI) data.

It's time to move on. This argument's getting a bit old hat. Step aside ROI, make way for outcomes: tailored, meaningful, simple (more of which later).

It's in investors' interests

According to a recent article in The Telegraph, London startup Soma Analytics found that FTSE 100 businesses that used the words "mental health" or "wellbeing" more than twice in their annual reports enjoyed a mean profit of £1.4tn, three times that (at £563bn for the year) of those that didn't use such phrases.

The "alarming" aspect to the findings, reports Johann Huber, co-founder and chief executive of Soma analytics in the newspaper article, is that this only applies to a quarter of FTSE 100 companies. "We want to turn management's attention to this blind spot," he said, adding that there is more stigma attached to the words mental health than there is wellbeing.

The study pushes forward the argument that the more a company holds itself publicly accountable for the wellbeing of its employees, the more they will invest in it. This, in turn, is in investors' interests, with sick days and lost productivity costing billions of pounds each year.

How big is the ROI hurdle?

Mental health is reportedly a "major" concern for two fifths (40%) of employers in the UK, according to research published earlier this year by Reward-Guide, supported by Generali.

Only a very small minority of organisations (5%) have a standalone mental health policy, although a further 29% do include mental health as part of another policy (generally wellbeing), according to the CIPD's most recent Absence Management Survey.

The biggest barriers to building a wellbeing strategy, according to Reward's research, were found to be: "Justifying return on investment" (57%); and "Lack of senior management commitment" (31%).

In fact, a whopping 94% of respondents said that ROI was important when selecting a new wellbeing benefit.

Time to focus on outcomes

Whilst there are numerous studies in the industry that try to evidence ROI with regards to wellbeing initiatives, they are generally big studies on an industry level - or even across industries - and the results tend to be meaningless on a individual company level.

Alison Pay, marketing and operations director at Mental Health at Work, advocates taking an outcomes-based approach instead of getting bogged down by ROI. "Outcomes are much simpler: define what you want to change and then ask yourself have you changed it," she says. "I liken this to a company investing in leadership activities. They don't measure success in terms of ROI. They measure it by assessing whether management skills and practices have improved and whether their teams are happy and satisfied."

She adds: "There's no "one" mental health and wellbeing programme for all companies, in the same way that there's no "one" outcome measure for all companies.

"For example, in terms of facilitated mental health training - the kind of thing we offer to companies - it's important to define upfront what you want those people attending to come away with. For training focused on the general population, this might be about awareness and literacy. For line managers, it will be about skills and will vary according to their roles and responsibilities. 

It's important to link insights from outcomes - the quantitative and the qualitative - with other relevant measurable aspects across the company in order to gain a true and meaningful picture.

Alison explains that it's useful to look at absenteeism related to mental health but adds that without further insights it's difficult to isolate cause and effect.

"When you start outcome measures, absence related to mental health is likely to go up as most employees won't tell the workplace about depression or stress. But once you create a more open environment, this changes." 

The important thing is that this ensures people get the help they need and, over the long term, absence levels can be managed and reduced.

The collaborative effect

Generali recently partnered with Mental Health at Work in the latest phase of its Wellbeing Investment Matching initiative. This sees the insurer providing financial support to its group income protection (IP) clients to help them implement much needed wellbeing initiatives.

These will be tailored initiatives that generally fall outside of the remit of added value wellbeing benefits already provided as part and parcel of group IP, such as access to a mental health manager's toolkit: an easy to understand formal process that potentially includes use of the employee assistance programme (EAP), referral for face to face counselling and additional pathway support.

With all these aspects included gratis the ROI argument becomes academic, leaving the employer to work closely with the insurance provider and third party wellbeing experts to focus on meaningful outcomes instead.

Combining early notification of absence with full utilisation of added value benefits, and wellbeing investment matching, there's no reason why the rest of the FTSE 100 and every other company in the UK cannot show employees past, present and future - not to mention investors - that mental health and wellbeing matters to them and it matters to business.

Simon Thomas is director - UK Employee Benefits at Generali.