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Don’t ignore mental health: Promote a healthy work place and you’ll have something to smile about
The first Monday of February has been dubbed ‘National Sickie Day’ by employment law firm, ELAS*. The combination of miserable weather, commuting in the dark, post-Christmas credit card bills and long gap between holidays makes early February the perfect time for skiving. Though the notion of a National Duvet Day is a little tongue in cheek, the challenge of absence management for employers is no laughing matter.
Absence is undoubtedly expensive – Dame Carol Black in her 2008 report Working for a healthier tomorrow estimated the annual economic costs to the UK of sickness absence and worklessness associated with working age ill-health to be over £100bn.** For UK employers, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in its latest absence management survey, calculates the annual cost of sickness absence to be £554 per employee.***
When it comes to managing sickness absence, most spells of sick leave are for a short duration that are straightforward to deal with. The big challenge for employers comes when ill or injured employees have a health issue that means they will be absent from work for a lengthy period of time.
It becomes particularly difficult to monitor absence when the issue cannot be seen – for example, absences due to chronic pain or mental ill health issues which can affect anyone and can be difficult to spot.
Mental health becomes even harder to manage because 40% of employees say that they would not tell their boss the truth if they were calling in sick if they were ill with stress, 2
anxiety or depression.**** Even though, one in four employees – including bosses – say that they have personally experienced mental ill health.
• Role models
To raise awareness, employers need to lead from the top by being open and honest about mental health and encouraging and supporting individuals in the organisation to share their experiences.
This can be done, for example, at team meetings or in one-to-ones. A great way to make a real impact is to encourage members of the senior management team (for example, the company’s MD) to speak candidly about their own experiences. Setting an example from the top gives a clear message that mental health is important and an integral part of everyone’s wellbeing.
Managers need to be made aware of and alert to signs that their people may be struggling to cope with the pressures in their lives. Signs and symptoms can vary from person to person so it can be hard to identify someone who is having difficulty coping. It can also be difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced mental health issues to understand and relate to those who are in this situation.
Mental health issues can affect motivation, performance and relationships at work. However, by putting into place prevention and support systems for employees, businesses can add real value, both by helping to create a positive workplace culture where there is good awareness and understanding of mental ill health and by ensuring that there is suitable support in place to help those affected by it.
Managers should be given support (such as specialist training and/or creation of supportive networks) to give them the confidence to initiate appropriate conversations with affected employees – and to deal with their responses when they broach the issue. They can then advise employees what services are available to them (access to 3 a confidential counselling helpline, for example) which will enable them to support their staff more confidently and effectively.
Employers can’t remove all work pressures but they can work with affected employees to develop coping strategies to help to reduce stress – for example, through a change in working hours or a change of job role. As a part of their duty of care to protect employee health and safety, HR and managers would be wise to work together to identify and address potential work related triggers for stress or mental health problems.
There is no one size fits all approach to managing mental health at work but employers need to ensure they’re including it as part of their wider absence management policy. So next time your employee calls in sick, take the time to ask them how they really are – it could make a difference.
Mark holds Associate Fellowship and Chartership with the British Psychological Society, he is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and is a chartered Scientist.
Mark joined the medical services of AXA PPP healthcare in June 2008 and was previously Clinical Director for AXA PPP healthcare Employee Support for over 10 years.
Prior to joining AXA Mark worked as a Senior Psychologist in the NHS and has many years of clinical experience and research expertise. He is an active member of the EAPA, BPS and BACP - Workplace. He maintains a private practice as a Psychologist in London.
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