News alanysis: Rising cost of workplace depression

As workplace pressures continue, employers should take steps to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their employees, says Nicola Sullivan

As employers and their workers continue to experience pressures from the economic climate and current government cuts, depression in the workplace is increasingly becoming more of an issue for compensation and benefits professionals.

According to mental health charity Mind’s report Taking care of business campaign, which was published in May and surveyed more than 2,000 employees, 41% are stressed or very stressed in their jobs, making the workplace more stressful than money worries, marriage and relationships, or health issues.

But many staff feel uncomfortable speaking out about stress and depression at work. In some cases, they fear for their job security if they admit feeling stressed or depressed in the workplace. According to Mind’s research, one in five believe mentioning stress levels would put them first in line for redundancy. And some employees’ fears were not unfounded, with 22% of those who had disclosed a mental health problem in a previous job claiming they had been fired or forced to quit.

Amy Whitelock, senior policy officer at Mind, said factors such as excessive workloads, unrealistic targets, frustration with management and even poor management impacted on employees’ mental health. “All these things are factors where the economic climate is putting pressure on the business,” she said. “That pressure is being passed on to employees and is resulting, in some cases, in depression, anxiety or other mental health problems. Although it is a huge problem, and employers are starting to recognise that, it is still very much the elephant in the room at work.”

To tackle depression and the long-term absences it can lead to, employers must create an open environment in which staff feel comfortable to discuss their mental health. HR professionals can achieve this by: flagging up mental wellbeing in appraisals and performance reviews; providing employees with training in emotional resilience; using senior and well-known figures in the organisation as case studies; looking at workplace benefits, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and cognitive behavioural therapy; and setting up buddying and mentoring schemes which allow staff to talk about their problems to someone outside their management structure.

Andrew Kinder, vice-chairman of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association and chief psychologist at Atos Healthcare, said: “Depression affects one in four of us and work is good for you. Let’s help people in the workplace, so let’s get it declared, talked about and understood. If we can get senior people to put their hands up, then that tackles the stigma.”

Once a worker is identified as suffering from depression, managers can help them prioritise their workload, schedule regular meetings and catch-ups, offer flexible hours, and signpost relevant workplace benefits and occupational health services.

An EAP is one of the most popular benefits used by employers to combat depression, stress and anxiety, but unless it is communicated properly, employees are unlikely to take advantage of it.

Jenny Hawker, a health management consultant at Mercer, said: “In the UK, EAPs do not have a high level of utilisation and often that is because they are not well communicated. Employees maybe do not always understand what the service can provide and some do not like to admit they have a problem and are concerned about using a work-funded benefit.”

Employers may need to refer someone to the EAP, which provides guidance and support for the individual and for the manager, who may not have much experience of dealing with depression.

“It is about raising awareness,” said Kinder.

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