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Fit for work in mind and body

Companies looking after staff mental heath reap rewards

Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of employees is becoming a priority for many companies. “Many employers now help staff with everything from fitness to finance to mental well being,” says Fiona Wilson of Great Place To Work.

"When you're at work we want you to be at your best, but we recognise things go on outside of work. For two-thirds of a 24-hour day you're not here and there can be stressors. We wanted to try and help people deal with different life events," says Gavin O'Brien, head of HR at Genzyme.

Along with discounted fitness classes, the Waterford biotechnology company has helped staff strengthen their mental health by offering resilience training. This helps employees recognise stress, the signals to be aware of and, most importantly, tools to cope with it. Positive feedback from staff who have taken part resulted in Genzyme winning the Health and Safety Award at the 2015 PharmaChem Ireland Awards, and the uptake has been so good among its 620 employees that there is a waiting list.

Run off-site by the company’s occupational health team, the resilience programme helps identify if staff need further professional help. “We can redirect them to services if there is a particular issue, such as counselling or money advice,” says O’Brien. “It’s all free under the employee assistance programme, which has got a very positive reaction and we’ve seen fewer absences.”


A 2015 survey by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services showed mental health in the workplace is still taboo in many organisations. Only 21 per cent believe Irish employers would be comfortable employing someone with a mental health problem.

The research struck a chord with Laya Healthcare, who had always run mental health initiatives, but now has a dedicated programme to help de-stigmatise talking about mental health at work. Laya invited musician Niall Breslin to talk about his battle with mental health; it also had a cycle challenge to promote the positive effect of physical activity and a talk from suicide awareness group Pieta House. Staff also completed a Mind Score Survey in confidence and got advice on areas in their lives they could improve on, and highlighting where they were doing well. The survey rated the staff's mental health as "very good", which the company is keen to improve.

The survey also helped Laya put together a programme tackling issues identified by staff as a struggle. “Over the past 10 months we’ve held webinars on dealing with depression, overcoming anxiety and even simple things like minding your finances during the silly season, which helped people budget over Christmas,” says Orla O’Callaghan, Laya’s occupational health adviser.

As a result, staff are more comfortable talking about mental health. “There’s more openness, we’ve noticed, among team leaders. They are letting us know someone on their team might be struggling and people are talking about it more.”

A healthy body is often linked to a healthy mind and at Alkermes, a pharmaceutical manufacturing and biopharmaceutical company, the emphasis on a fit workforce comes from staff, supported by management. The company's wellbeing team has taken a number of approaches over the years, with a "Get up, get active" campaign, including an Operation Transformation-style programme and fitness classes.

An element of competition among participating staff was introduced recently. Teams earn points for activities – walking, running or basketball in the company’s gym and auditorium. The team with most points over a six-week cycle is the winner. “It created healthy competition between teams as to which was fittest, and encouraged people to be a bit more active,” says Anita Curley, Alkermes HR manager.

The company has subsidised fitness classes, talks about mental health and dealing with shift work, and in 2015 became smoke-free. “Anything that improves lifestyle or educates people on wellness will contribute to employee wellbeing, which contributes to a more productive and healthy work environment,” says Curley.

Nora-Ide McAuliffe

Nora-Ide McAuliffe

Nora-Ide McAuliffe is an Audience Editor with The Irish Times