Supporting Mental Health in the Work Place

Sunday 7th April marks World Health Day 2019, and in May we’ll be welcoming Mental Health Awareness Month.  A day where we should feel safe to discuss our mental health issues. A day we should be able to ask for help if we need it, but do we? Or are we still as affected by the stigma surrounding mental health as we ever were?

ONE IN FOUR IN THE UK WILL SUFFER A MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE

We know the statistics; we hear them often enough. One in four people in the UK will have a mental health issue at one point in their life – do you know which people these are in your workplace?  And what have you done today to make sure their day is a little easier?  If the answers are no, and nothing, then perhaps we need more than just one day in a year to focus on health because it may be that we are a long way from getting it right.

In my opinion, it is not those with mental illness that need to speak up and disclose their conditions, it is those without that need to talk about their training requirements for supporting those around them with these conditions.

I am the one in four.  I have had my fair share of mental health problems.  As a teen I fought through severe clinical depression which came and went for periods of time until I finally found a drug I could take as I felt an ‘episode’ coming on to control it.  My problems were chemical, I had ‘no good reason to be depressed’ or whatever it is they tell you; it was a lack of serotonin in my brain.  Nothing to do but take the pills and wait for the levels to turn around and things to feel a little more normal.

RETIRED AT 21 ON GROUNDS OF ILL HEALTH

At the time, I worked for a large corporation, I was one of thousands of employees but in a department of around twenty, my absence did not go unnoticed. I was put onto a disciplinary, my absences were reviewed each time, my colleagues gossiped whilst I was off and didn’t speak to me when I returned. My bosses knew the condition with which I was suffering, yet they didn’t ask me how things were, they never questioned it, just shuffled over it and said very little. As a result of poor management, my absences increased and the more they increased the further I wandered down the disciplinary procedures. I was a number, following procedures put in place for those who were taking unauthorised absences to go off to Tenerife for the week. I was not in Tenerife of course, I was at home, in bed, avoiding opening the mail and answering the phone because my depression made dealing with their harsh procedures impossible.

After a year of bad management and repeating to my bosses that I was being made worse by my working environment, I was offered a three-month secondment within an admin team elsewhere in the business. I leapt at the opportunity and boasted an 100% attendance, at the end of the three months though, I was deemed fit enough to return to my normal duties and when I was unable to sustain my attendance in my old department, I was retired on grounds of ill health – at the ripe old age of 21.

SUPPORT MATTERS!

Anyone reading this can see what the problem was.  My condition was not compassionately managed, my colleagues were not sure how to deal with someone with a mental illness, so they chose not to, and I was put on a disciplinary, rather than a support plan.  When my attendance was up to scratch, I was statistically the best performing member of staff in the department, handling the most calls and managing to resolve the highest percentage of those on the first call without need for escalation.  I was good at my job, but it didn’t matter, there was a procedure to follow.  One size fits all; and when the procedure meant for keeping the holidaymakers in the office during working hours didn’t cure me of my clinical depression, I found myself out in the cold – looking for work whilst trying to pick up the pieces of my life.

My condition was not stress at work, but stress at work aggravated my condition, making recovery impossible and attendance goals unachievable  – in hindsight, the best thing they did for me was to send me into retirement as I soon found a new temp role which was supportive enough to get me through the worst of things and help me find another skilled job back in the sector I was trained for – but that shouldn’t have been the case!

WHY SHARE THE STORY NOW

It pains me to admit it, but it has been a long time since I was 21, so you might wonder why I am sharing this story now?  The problem is that what I am talking about is still so relevant, in fact it’s more relevant than it has ever been before, as nearly a decade later, some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues has finally been broken down.  We are starting to accept that mental health issues are something we need to know about and support, however, it seems to me – and those I speak to with similar conditions, that we still just don’t know how to handle them.

Mental Health Awareness month is looming – starting at the beginning of May.  What greater time could there be to make a positive change for your workforce?

Perhaps you are a key decision maker, sympathetic to your staff with mental health issues but unsure of how to help.  Here are a few suggestions that I would have found to be a lifeline in my darkest days.

CREATING A MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT ROLE

Consider appointing a ‘Mental Health Support Lead’: someone within the business who has the right resources to answer questions for employees looking for support with mental health difficulties.

Whether that be that they are trained to listen and counsel to a point for a large corporation or whether they are simply there with the contact details of local services and the best way to access help for a spectrum of issues – having someone as a point of contact could really make a difference.  This person needs to be armed with information of who can help and when and they should have the ability to authorise absences to allow a colleague to engage with support services, whether that be through private counselling or other therapies or for an emergency hospital admission in extreme cases.

This person should also be responsible for reviewing attendance and offering support to colleagues who show poor attendance or poor punctuality, finding out if mental health issues are to blame and offering them support if that is the cause.

DEPARTMENTAL ISSUES

Departmentally, we should be looking for signs of bullying or discrimination.  This can often be identified by looking at absence on a departmental level rather than an individual one.  There are also many resources out there ready to be picked up and used, such as anonymous questionnaires which can help staff communicate issues to management.

We should offer training on Stress at Work and Mental Health Awareness Training to colleagues who need help to understand what their colleagues are going through.  MIND the mental health charity offer organisation training courses and could be contacted to help staff understand how to show compassion and support to their colleagues.  Improving the ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ and ‘time to talk’ culture.

MENTAL HEALTH AT WORK PLANS 

Having a ‘Mental Health at Work’ plan is something advocated by the HSE’s management standards.  This includes management putting together a plan for people with Mental Health difficulties, as no two illnesses are the same it would need to be an open ended questionnaire where a competent person meets with someone with difficulties, finds out what parts of their role help and hinder their illness and if an arrangement can be made to increase the parts that help, and reduce the parts that hinder.

It needs to look at whether a full working day or week is sustainable for that person at that time – often offering a person suffering mental health difficulties a shorter working day or week can help them to feel empowered and help them recharge enough to start to tackle their difficulties.  It can also give them vital time to make and take appointments with mental health care specialists.  Employers should encourage staff to engage with resources in their local area and accept help, potentially, with consent, liaising with the teams involved to find a way to effectively support their colleague back into work.

More generally, it could include arranging coffee and cake mornings where mental health is an open topic and colleagues are encouraged to take part – you could even invite in some Mental Health champions from your local area to chat with your staff.

DON’T BE THE REASON YOUR EMPLOYEES ARE ABSENT AND LEAVING. 

If you have a high amount of absence within your business due to mental health issues, conditions must be reassessed.  If there is a chance working conditions are causing your staff mental health issues it is your responsibility to fix this.  All too often you hear of jobs in which staff are worked to the bone with no breaks or respect and treated like animals.  Predominantly in production roles where the fast pace turnover improves business income, often employers in these fields simply allow their staff force to be ever changing, not concerning themselves with the high turnover, keeping their blinkers in place and blaming it on other factors.  The truth is, treating employees well and looking after them – physically and mentally, improves staff attrition rates, and increases productivity.  More importantly, as part of health and safety law you are legally obligated to ensure that your staff do not have any aspect of their health compromised by their role and you are required to put in reasonable control measures to prevent such problems occurring – if a staff member can prove you have not looked after their health at work you could even find yourself in court over the matter.

Full time employees spend most of their waking hours at work!  Employers and colleagues are often the most likely to notice symptoms of mental health illness, but we are reluctant to ‘interfere’ with personal issues – this needs to change too!  Colleagues should be trained regarding the importance of whistle blowing and passing on concerns to their employers regarding mental health.

Although many victims of suicide did not show any indications beforehand, thousands do, and intervention in the right way at the right time can save lives.

THE FACTS AND FIGURES. 

Business critically – intervention and mental health support is proven to save money.  The Stevenson and Farmer Thriving at Work report in 2017 estimated that between £33 billion and £42 billion is the annual cost to employers who do not manage their employee’s mental health well, the cost of staff absence, reduced staff productivity, temp/cover staff and the costs associated with a high staff turnover contribute to this shocking figure.

If a cost of £33-42 billion doesn’t shock you into action, how about a few of these?

15.4 Million – the amount of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017-18

595,000 – Workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long standing) in 2017-18

57% – the amount of working days lost of all absences which were caused by stress, depression or anxiety in 2017-18

Public Service industries show higher levels of work-related stress than all other industries.

Main work factors cited by respondents as being the cause were workload pressures, tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support.

The irony here is this; perhaps if we were supporting the mental health of our staff better, we would have better attendance rates, more staff in the office equals a smaller workload spread across more people, reducing work-related stress naturally, a team who are at work and working well need less managing, freeing up manager time to give the support where it is needed and manage their own workloads and responsibilities.

Effectively, it could be that we are causing stress at work by not tackling it!

WORLD HEALTH DAY

We have a window of perfect opportunity – placed right in the middle of World Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Month.  Let’s use this time to talk

Let’s talk about how we are managing our staff.

Let’s talk about how we support our staff and where they go if they have a problem.

Let’s talk about whether our staff are adequately trained, instructed and monitored.

Let’s talk about mental health at work plans.

Let’s talk about helping and supporting each other.

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