Beating stress with benefits

by 20 May 2010

The UK seems to be in the middle of a stress epidemic, which often manifests itself in the workplace. But just how widespread is stress at work, and what benefits can employers use to address at least some of the causes and symptoms? John Charlton reports

The 2010 IRS stress management survey (SMS), published by XpertHR, collected the views of 98 employers on how they were managing stress at work. It found 79 per cent of them had taken or are taking steps to reduce work-related stress.

Report author Rachel Suff, XpertHR employment relations editor, says: “The majority of employers have introduced, on average, at least six different measures to deal with stress at work.”

These include advice on healthy eating and free or subsidised health screening, employee assistance programmes, discussions between managers and staff about stress issues, and offers of flexible working options. As the survey findings indicate, benefits can be powerful weapons in any employer’s anti-stress armoury.

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are, arguably, the benefits weapon of choice in the fight against workplace stress. They are designed to support employees with work and/or personal concerns. These may include relationships, bullying at work, health- and alcohol-related problems, or financial and legal issues. Employees can usually access their EAP via 24-hour telephone counselling helplines or even face to face.

Steve Joyce, head of marketing at benefits specialist Ceridian, says: “Giving employees access to an EAP as part of their benefits package ensures the workforce has much needed support to deal with personal and work-related issues on a confidential basis.”

Many benefits providers offer EAPs, including Jelf. Director Matthew Judge said “hard data and results” on their efficiency “are hard to come by”. But he points to data from global EAP specialist PPC Worldwide on the impact of counselling provided as part of an EAP programme. This found 74.7 per cent of employees, in more than 800 cases, “said they had got better after counselling was provided via their EAP”.

Jill Pollock, health and wellbeing consultant at healthcare specialist Bupa, says EAPs “have a fantastic impact” on reducing stress and absence levels. “There’s a significant body of evidence that they reduce absence rates by 20 per cent to 60 per cent,” she says. But how much do they cost?

Eugene Farrell, chairman of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association, says costs vary widely from £30 ($49.50) per capita for a group of 200 employees, £10 per capita for a group of 1,000, or less than £7 for a group of 3,000. But he cautions: “It’s important when selecting EAP providers not to automatically select the cheapest option, as you really do get what you pay for.”

Duty of care

Mark Eaton, director of EAP provider Personal Group, says employers that offer EAPs are “not only showing that they think about their employees’ wellbeing, but are also addressing their duty of care to the workforce”. This may help when it comes to fighting a stress claim in the courts or at tribunal, where claimants may argue a stress-related illness was due to employer negligence.

Although there is no statute law covering stress specifically, it is covered in various pieces of legislation, such as the 1999 Health and Safety at Work regulations, while amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005 mean that stress may qualify a sufferer as disabled.

Other than EAPs, the benefits that help employees cope with stress revolve around health, wellbeing and fitness. Fit and healthy workers are less likely to suffer from stress or be regular absentees. Benefits such as health and dental cover, screening, occupational health, gym membership and cycle-to-work schemes fall into this category.

Insurance and cash plans

Private health insurance (PHI) or private medical insurance (PMI) can be very expensive for employers, and employees will usually be taxed on it as a benefit in kind. But comprehensive cover will certainly help relieve stress in employees worried about an illness or condition. And it usually means faster treatment than on the NHS and therefore - probably - less time off work.

Cash plans are a cheaper alternative. Simplyhealth provides Simply Cash Plan, which starts from £1 per employee per week and gives telephone access to advice on health and wellbeing issues, plus child and elder care advice. Employers that want to add face-to-face counselling for employees and support for HR and line managers would pay from 15 pence per employee per week.

Dental cover

Cash plans cover some of the costs of treatment which are claimed back from the plan provider. Many will cover dental treatment, and demand could soon be on the up - recent reports indicate that more people are suffering bruxism, the medical term for grinding of the teeth.

The British Dental Health Foundation says “stress is probably the major reason - people not being able to cope with things going on in their work or love life or having money worries.”

Dental benefits are an obvious answer. Benefits provider Denplan says its research shows four in 10 people in the UK put off visits to the dentists because of cost. “This is a troubling statistic when considering the current economic climate,” it says, adding that dental costs “look set to increase”.

“This is where offering dental cover as a company benefit can really play a vital role,” says Pam Whelan, Denplan corporate sales manager. “Dental problems can be extremely stressful. They can not only affect people’s ability to eat, sleep and work and socialise effectively, but may contribute to lifelong oral and general health problems.”

Alcoholism and occupational health

Another sign of stress is alcoholism, which can be a very sensitive issue. But Dutch company Tactus International may have an answer. It plans to launch a website, Lookatyourdrinking.com, which will act as a gateway to a 16-week programme of treatment at a cost of about £2,000 per head.

UK managing director Marco Martinez says: “Our plan is to offer our services to corporates via their intranet sites. Employees will be able to access therapeutic help for alcohol problems anonymously. We can provide anonymous aggregated management information back to the corporate, and they pay only for those people that engage in treatment. The website can be branded, but is generally provided free of charge, provided treatment is made available to employees.”

Finally, for those employers that can afford it, providing an occupational health service to employees will help to identify and tackle stress.

Courtesy of Personnel Today www.personneltoday.com