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‘Our ability to deal with mental illness is a long way behind’

‘Our ability to deal with mental illness is a long way behind’

Mental health problems affect one in six British workers each year and is the leading cause of sickness absence.

Yet, according to MetLife UK, only 15 per cent of small and medium-sized businesses offer disability/income protection to their staff, a policy in which mental health is one of the most common claims. UK SMEs account for more than 95 per cent of firms.

Peter O’Donnell, chief executive of Unum UK and chairman of Unum Poland, says: “Our ability [as a market] to diagnose and deal with mental illness is a long way behind where physical illness has been, because we are just beginning to learn about it.

“[At Unum] the incidents of mental illness have risen significantly over the past 20 years. I suspect it was always there but people did not [talk about it] because they would be stigmatised.

"It is great that people are now talking about it, but there is a lot more that needs to be done.”

Where, historically, discussing mental health in the workplace was a taboo subject, that is changing. Working conditions have improved and employers are educating themselves more on how to spot the signs.

Unum offers group protection insurance policies taken out by an employer for their employees, such as life insurance, income protection or critical illness. A significant amount of this business is sold through brokers. 

One of the things the insurer has been doing, to raise awareness and help remove the stigma associated with mental illness, is to run sessions between mental health professionals and employer clients and their staff.

Mr O’Donnell says: “People perceive insurance as something there to protect them when they need it. In today’s world that is not relevant enough. You need to have much more of a connection with your customer and you need to deliver services on an ongoing basis.”

To support its plans Unum also conducts research to spot where there are gaps. One of its recent studies looked at the demographic of people who used its rehab service in 2018 to return to work. The survey found that more people used this service for mental health issues than any other condition. 

And breaking down the research even further, Unum found that men made up 57 per cent of all cases using its return to work support for mental health – with the biggest rise among men aged under 30.

Knowing how to spot the signs early where an employee is struggling, or how to deal with the issue when it is spotted, can often be a challenge for employers.

Unum runs mental health workshops with line managers. It also works with charities to understand how employers can manage people with a serious illness and help employees deal with that illness, recovery and returning to work.