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Investing in mental health in the workplace

One of the most prominent faces in Tony Blair’s team in the period when he was prime minister was his communications director Alastair Campbell. Few people realised that at the time Campbell was struggling with depression.

Leaving his high-profile role in government has not eased his illness. Instead he says “slowing down” often led to new problems. Campbell is now acting as the ambassador of the Daily Mirror mental health campaign –Time to Change – to create awareness about this often hidden problem that afflicts most workplaces.

Trying to gauge the extent of mental health problems in our own workplaces is difficult because I know of no study that throws any light on this issue. So I have to rely on foreign research to get an indication of the extent of this problem. A 2010 study in the US indicated that 18 per cent of workers aged between 15 and 54 surveyed said that they experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month.

The financial and economic global crisis has not made dealing with mental health problems in the workplace any easier. Those who follow Italian TV news bulletins are often made aware of the number of suicides committed by desperate people who just cannot cope with the uncertainties that the economic downturn has brought about. These unfortunate people range from unemployed breadwinners to distressed entrepreneurs who see their businesses destroyed by the unforgiving laws of competition.

But often mental health disorders go unrecognised in the workplace, partly because of ignorance on the part of management to detect the symptoms of a troubled person and partly because mental health disorders still attach a stigma to those suffering from such disabilities. The result is that these disorders are often untreated “not only damaging an individual’s health and career, but also reducing productivity at work”.

An added complication is that even when affected people seek treatment, such treatment is often inadequate “as it is not consistent with medical guidelines about minimal standards of care”. Another US study indicates that only about one in four employees with major depression receive adequate treatment of the disorder.

Mental health disorders come in various forms. Depression is by far the most common and in most Western countries about 6 per cent of employees experience symptoms of depression in any given year. Anxiety, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are other common debilitating conditions that affect some workers.

The cost of these health conditions is both direct and indirect. Prolonged absenteeism is the most common consequence. A World Health Organisation study found that workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days per year – nine of them because of sick leave or other time taken out of work, and another 18 reflecting lost productivity.

Workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days per year

To address this problem adequately employers need to understand why mental health problems in the workplace are so enduring. While most people are very effective in getting treatment for most illnesses that afflict them, they find it difficult to get treatment for mental health disorders that they may be suffering from.

Good employers train their managers to recognise the symptoms of mental health problems so that they can help their staff to deal with these issues as early as possible. For instance, the symptoms of depression in the workplace often take the form of nervousness, restlessness, or irritability. Affected employees may also become passive, withdrawn, aimless and unproductive. Depression may also impair judgment or cloud decision-making. It also invariably affects the morale of employees working with a person suffering from this disorder.

Identifying the problem is a first step that should lead to more investment in health. Research confirms that companies that assist their employees to deal with their mental disorders effectively benefit in various ways from their investment.

When mental health disorders are adequately treated, companies reduce job-related accidents, sick leave, and employee turnover, as well as improve the number of hours worked and employee productivity.

But dealing with such disorders is never a quick fix. Initially employees suffering from mental disorders may need to take time off to attend to medical appointments or reduce their hours in order to recover. The empathy and practical help that managers can give to their affected employees will often speed up the recovery phase.

Put simply, investing in mental health in the workplace makes business sense.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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