Know the signs of mental health problems among staff

If you read nothing else, read this…

• Depression and mental health problems are the biggest cause of long-term absence in the workplace.

• Employers need to face up to the challenge of depression in the workplace to improve employee wellbeing and productivity – and meet their duty-of-care obligations.

• Offering access early through EAPs or other services can help to nip the problem in the bud, as can training line managers to identify sufferers.

Depression and mental illness are a growing workplace problem that employers cannot afford to ignore, says Sally Hamilton

With depression and mental illness becoming more common in the workforce, employers are being urged to take a three-way approach to the problem: prevention, detection, and helping the afflicted.

Depression and mental illness are now the main cause of long-term absence from the workplace and the second most common cause of short-term absence, according to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)/ Pfizer Absence and workplace health survey, published in May 2011.

Good management can help prevent early-stage mental ill-health from developing into depression, says Janice Haddon, head of health and wellbeing firm Health Matters 360. “People can slip into depression if their essential needs are not met. These include the need to feel safe and free from bullying or harassment, having control over their situation at work with some level of autonomy, and having a manager who sets clear directions and offers help to manage the workload. Motivating people is good, but managers need to watch out that it can tip them into depression if the workload exceeds their capability.”

In the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development’s Employee outlook: Focus on mental health in the workplace (2011) survey, published in December 2011, just four in 10 employees said they would feel confident to disclose a mental health problem to their employer. Identifying depression early can help nip the problem in the bud, so line managers are in the best position to help.

Haddon says: “Depression can manifest itself in physical illness. A sufferer’s immunity is weakened and they get more colds, flu and back pain, and suffer from migraines and insomnia. Line managers need to look out for apathy, lack of energy, people being excessively negative, a tendency to be less rational with black-and-white thinking, irritability, being withdrawn or anti-social, and showing less interest in their appearance.”

Less engaged with colleagues

Other signs include staff using alcohol to self-medicate and being less engaged with their colleagues.

Haddon suggests putting in place a policy on dealing with suspected depression. “This might be getting managers to point staff towards the organisation’s employee assistance programme (EAP) or occupational health department,” she says. “Managers are not counsellors, but they can use a coaching style to encourage wellbeing among staff.”

Eugene Farrell, key accounts director at Axa PPP Healthcare, feels encouraged that employers are starting to train managers to understand and recognise depression. “Managers need to show staff they are there to listen and help,” he says. “They can tell them they can contact the EAP 24 hours a day.”

Dr Wolfgang Seidl, head of health management consulting, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Mercer Health and Benefits, urges employers to treat the issue seriously because protecting mental health is also part of an employer’s duty of care under health and safety at work legislation. “An EAP can be a gatekeeper that can triage the employee and decide whether they might need cognitive behavioural therapy or to see a psychotherapist,” he says. “Research has shown that if you intervene early, you can reduce the chance of the depression becoming severe.”

Farrell praises mental health charity Mind’s work in promoting good practice. EDF Energy is making strides in this area. By offering cognitive behavioural therapy and training to 1,000 managers to spot and deal with staff suffering from mental health problems, it claims to have saved approximately £228,000 a year in improved productivity.

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