Fear of judgement is preventing many employees from opening up about their health concerns, and that there are a number of simple steps businesses could take to improve the use of existing benefits, a new survey conducted by Aetna International has revealed.

The research, which examined the views of 3,520 workers in four global markets (UAE, UK, US, Singapore) found that many employees are reluctant to use benefits because they are worried about how management will react if they find out. In fact, fear of being penalised for health issues at work was identified as the main barrier to accessing benefits by survey respondents.

When respondents were asked what stops them from accessing the current health and well-being benefits provided by their employer, the top three reasons were:
1. Fear that my career progression will be impacted if HR/management finds out I am struggling (29%)
2. Fear that HR/management will find out details about my mental health (27%)
3. I don't know how to access existing health and well-being benefits (24%)

Additionally, a fifth (20%) of respondents said they don't use health and well-being benefits because they are worried about how their colleagues will perceive them if they do.

Responses suggests that a worrying level of stigma remains in the workplace - particularly when it comes to mental health. Nearly a third (30%) said reassurance that they won't be penalised for using mental health support would encourage them to use these services more.

Close to a half (42%) would like to see training for management to better deal with employee well-being and just under a third (31%) feel their employer could help to destigmatise mental health issues by discussing them more openly. This suggests that better communication and training could play a critical role in alleviating current barriers to benefits access and use.

"These findings suggest that a significant minority of employees may try to cope alone when facing mental or physical health challenges. Sadly stigma, particularly around mental health, means some employees still believe they could face repercussions if they reveal they are struggling, which should never be the case in any workplace," said David Healy, Chief Executive Officer, Europe at Aetna International.

"We know from previous research that businesses across the world have notably increased their support for employee health and well-being over the last 18 months, and have become much more sensitive to the stress, anxiety and other pressures people face on a daily basis," continued Healy. "The good news is that the vast majority of businesses are now more supportive of their employees' well-being, the challenge is ensuring employees feel able and empowered to speak up and use the support and resources available to them."

Empowering employees to better manage their health
While more needs to be done to reassure employees that they will not be judged for using available health support, results also show that close to a quarter of global respondents simply do not know how to access their company's health and well-being benefits.

Nearly half (48%) said they would be more likely to use health and well-being benefits if they were properly introduced to them and a similar number (45%) say they would like proper training on how to access and use available support.

This indicates that even if employers have good initiatives in place, they may be missing out on simple steps - like an introductory briefing or training session - which could help educate and empower employees to better manage their own health.

Furthermore, the findings highlight that a top down approach to promoting existing heath programmes could be key: over a third (35%) of respondents feel they would use benefits more if leadership communicated more about them.

The survey data shows there are a number of steps employers can take to make health and well-being support more accessible, such as:

• Offering employees a more structured introduction to available support: many employees said they would benefit from a formal introduction or training on current benefits, so they understand exactly where to turn if they require support.
• Encouraging more open discussions around health and well-being and where to access support: More than a third (36%) of employees would feel more comfortable using benefits if they knew colleagues were using them as well and many would make better use of existing support if leadership communicated more about this.
• Considering how support can be tailored: A third (33%) would use available health and well-being benefits if they were more personalised to their individual needs.
• Being clear about privacy: Around a third (32%) of global respondents said knowing what information is available to others about their use of benefits would encourage them to use these more.