Tackling depression in the workplace

Employers must take steps to check and help their workforce’s mental wellbeing, says Nicola Sullivan.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends employers conduct stress audits. A basic stress audit involves asking staff, either throughout an organisation or in a particular department, to answer key questions anonymously about their job and their employer.
  • An employee assistance programme (EAP) helps staff deal with emotional problems that might adversely affect performance at work. EAPs typically offer an initial assessment, followed by face-to-face or telephone counselling.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy can be an effective way of combating stress and depression because it can help to challenge distorted thinking.

A spate of highly-publicised suicides among the workforce at France Telecom has brought the issue of depression in the workplace under the microscope. Last month, the death toll reached 25 when an employee hanged himself in Brittany. Many of the victims blamed problems at work for their distress.

While France Telecom’s management processes are under scrutiny and calls are being made for an inquiry into working conditions there, UK employers are under increasing pressure to ensure they have robust strategies to tackle depression. Figures from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health show mental ill-health affects productivity by impairing employees’ ability to function at full capacity. It also accounts for 40% of all days lost through sickness absence.

Professional advice

Measures outlined in Dame Carol Black’s report Review of the health of Britain’s working age population: Working for a better tomorrow in March last year put more onus on employers to integrate staff who are off sick with depression or other long-term illnesses back into the workplace. Kate Bawden, an associate at Mercer, says: “Rehabilitating somebody back into the workplace who has suffered from a mental health problem of stress and depression is a very difficult and skilled thing to do.

Employers need professional advice because if they get it wrong, it just compounds the situation and they get an even longer absence.” Employers should consider how to minimise the impact of mental health problems when drawing up occupational health and workplace benefit policies, whether they relate to absence, flexible working or engagement. Ann Dougan, marketing director at Cigna, says: “The role each of those plays in supporting people with mental health problems and enabling them to either be at work or return to work as quickly as possible should be considered.”

Employee assistance programmes

Many organisations choose to look after employees’ mental wellbeing by introducing an employee assistance programme (EAP). These help staff deal with emotional problems that might adversely affect performance at work by offering an initial assessment, then face-to-face or telephone counselling.

An EAP can also help to identify which form of treatment is most suitable for an individual, for example, whether they would benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy or other counselling

Wolfgang Seidl, executive director at the Validium Group, says: “CBT is focused on the here and now. It is about symptoms. It is also about the future, as well as behavioural practice, cognitive restructuring and challenging distorted thinking. It is a very pragmatic approach that has good outcomes.”

EAP providers commonly offer helplines and information for line managers trying to support an employee with depression or stress. But identifying cases of depression is not always easy. Employees are often reluctant to come forward and admit they have a mental health problem for fear of discrimination, according to the report Mental Health at Work published in March 2008 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Stress audits

The Health and Safety Executive recommends that employers conduct stress audits. A basic audit involves asking staff, either in an entire organisation or in a particular department, to answer key questions anonymously about their job and their employer.

Meanwhile, healthcare providers are introducing services to help employees themselves to identify the seriousness of any mental health condition before then providing the advice on how to manage it. For example, Vielife offers a depression management programme to reduce the impact caused by the tough economic climate. After an initial assessment of an individual’s mental wellbeing, they are given relevant information and put in touch with a telephone adviser, who helps them come up with strategies and coping mechanisms.

It is particularly important for employers to tackle problems associated with stress and depression to ensure its workforce can continue to add value to the organisation

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