Bold ideas for better wellbeing in the workplace

29 June 2017

Earlier this year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) Mental Health Commission launched an action plan on mental health. sets out bold ideas to drive better mental health and wellbeing, support people experiencing mental health issues, and reduce the impact of mental health on the region.

Superintendent Sean Russell is director of implementation for West Midlands Mental Health Commission and believes it is vital to take a cross-sector approach to mental health:

‘I’ve led the policing response to mental health in West Midlands police for the last six years. We've made significant progress in improving the service we give to people who are experiencing mental health crises and collaboration has been key to that progress. We talk about the whole journey, from street to justice, or street to care. I was really keen to strengthen that collaboration, across the region.’

The combined authority is facing a fiscal gap of £3.9 billion. It recognises that poor mental health and wellbeing impact on the local economy, as well as having a significant impact on individuals and communities. Analysis by the University of Birmingham estimates that:

  • 70,000 people in the region are not in work due to mental health problems
  • the annual cost of mental health related sickness absence is over £0.5 billion
  • 4.159 million working days are lost for mental health reasons.

So, part of the action plan sets out to trial and evaluate an innovative financial incentive for employers that encourages them to engage with the mental health and wellbeing of their employees – the workplace wellbeing premium.

What is the workplace wellbeing premium?

A major theme of the action plan is employment. The workplace wellbeing premium is an innovative idea, which recognises the potential role employers have to support good mental health and wellbeing among their employees and the huge impact that mental health issues have in the workplace.

The premium will reward employers that commit to introducing measures to support the wellbeing of their workforce including both mental and physical health. The commission is planning a two-year trial of the premium, including a formal evaluation supported by the OnlyWan. Around 100 organisations will take part in the trial and each will receive a grant. If successful, the model may incorporate a tax incentive for organisations.

Sean explains, ‘We want to show whether the financial incentive and the measures put in place by employers improve the wellbeing of their staff, and promote a culture of good wellbeing, which in turn reduces absences through sickness and prevents people leaving work due to mental ill health.’

How will it support mental health and wellbeing?

Organisations will be supported to put in place procedures to enable better management of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Small and medium-sized enterprises in particular may not have legal or human resources teams to consult on absenteeism, presenteeism (working while ill), and wellbeing. There are many existing toolkits and resources for businesses to use in supporting employee wellbeing. The programme will provide organisations with a menu of resources they can choose to use – many of them free – to support their employees and improve their productivity. They will also be supported to capture and use data better to promote a culture of good wellbeing.

Sean says, ‘People are scared of not doing the right thing, or doing or saying the wrong thing, so let’s get those processes, policies and procedures in place. My ambition is to have a lead board member in every organisation we recruit; to have line management training as a prerequisite; and to stimulate discussion throughout the organisation – so ultimately it helps to reduce mental health stigma as well.’

Going beyond health and social care

Through the combined authority, the plan is supported by over 120 signatories, including local authorities, NHS organisations, police, fire and ambulance services, schools and housing associations.

Sean says, ‘We were really clear that to improve mental health wellbeing in the region, we had to go beyond health and social care. For the employment strand, we pushed the idea out to the local chambers of commerce and local enterprise partnerships. The people we want to support are working with them and for them.’

The voices of people with lived experience of mental health issues have been sought and listened to, in particular through the Citizens Jury, throughout the development of the action plan. Members of the Citizens Jury have now formed a cooperative, and will continue to be a part of the work as it moves to implementation.

Sean says, ‘We see the value in recruiting people with lived experience. As we move forward, they will work with us to help us shape areas such as community engagement, housing provision, and our work in criminal justice and primary care. They are critical friends for us and they feel empowered to talk.’

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