· News

Mental health in the workplace

The economic climate has been a major contributor to high stress levels and 'recession depression.' Stress has been cited as the biggest cause of long-term sickness absence and the British way of dealing with it is said to run a serious risk of psychological problems. So why aren't we acknowledging mental illnesses in the workplace?

The number of anti-depressants prescribed in the UK has almost doubled in the last decade and continues to rise. Yet it remains a hidden illness. People rush to the doctor with aches and pains but avoid confronting emotional issues. Because there are no x-rays, scans or blood tests to ‘prove’ depression, it is misunderstood and lacks status as a ‘real’ problem.

Depression has never gained the respect that other illnesses have, leaving those who are diagnosed feeling shameful and embarrassed. During this economic climate where people are fighting for jobs, no-one wants to give their employer what they believe to be an easy excuse to get rid of them. Many avoid the issue and turn to drinking, over-eating or spending more time in the office. Ultimately these ‘solutions’ will increase stress and, from the company’s perspective, cost money in terms of sickness absence or low productivity levels.

Employees may want to discuss their illness but can be deterred when trying to find the right time: if I confess it in the interview, I’ll never get the job, but if I wait until I’ve been hired they’ll wonder why I didn’t bring it up earlier. It seems like a no-win situation. What if my boss will recoils back in disgust, ridicules me or just doesn’t believe it? And if they understand, what if they single me out for special attention? No-one wants to be the office laughingstock.

In reality, provided there is a good, open relationship between employers and employees, it shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a two-way thing and sometimes the responsibility lies with the employer. If they aren’t too overworked themselves, managers are in a prime position to notice these changes in behaviour. Is the individual taking longer to do standard tasks? Taking more days off? Becoming increasingly withdrawn or irritable?

Most cases are mild to moderate and can be treated quickly. But what if we could prevent it altogether? Mental health awareness has crept slightly up the agenda, thanks to campaigns such as See Me that work to reduce the stigma of depression in the workplace. But there is still a lot to be done to overcome the taboo of mental health in the workplace.

Prevention is, undoubtedly, better than cure. Employers have a duty of care to their employees and investment in the mental health of a workforce must be embedded in the core of the business. Government schemes, such as Stress Management Standards, can prevent the risk of stress and manage current stressors. On a day-to-day basis, managers should concentrate on maintaining their employees’ job satisfaction, work-life balance and general wellbeing. Exercise and healthy eating, for example, reduce the likelihood of stress. Companies can play an important role here: promote physical activity with the installation of bike sheds and improve nutrition by introducing healthier ingredients to the canteen.

Jamie Patterson is a psychotherapist at Abermed