Mental health problems at work

Work is important for mental health and wellbeing as it can promote self-esteem and identity, a sense of fulfilment, opportunities for social interaction, as well as being a source of income. But work can have negative effects too with prolonged periods of stress being linked to the most common types of mental ill health: anxiety, depression, phobic anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders.

Employers and line managers need to learn to recognise the key factors that can contribute to mental health problems before they take root as they will be far less serious and damaging if they can be identified early enabling timely support to be offered to employees. And investment in current employees is less expensive than recruiting and retraining new staff. Some potential warning signs that may suggest mental ill health include:

  • an increase in unexplained absences or sick leave;
  • poor performance;
  • poor-time-keeping;
  • increased use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco or caffeine;
  • frequent headaches and backaches;
  • withdrawal from social contact;
  • poor judgement/indecision;
  • constant tiredness or low energy;
  • unusual displays of emotion, e.g. frequent irritability or tearfulness.

Many people suffering from mental health problems will be wary of speaking to their colleagues or line managers about their issues because of the stigma associated with mental illness; many fear how their family, friends and colleagues will react. Staff awareness campaigns, e.g. ‘National Depression Awareness Week’, ‘National Stress Awareness Day’ (which is due to take place on 2 November 2011) play an important role in de-mystifying mental health problems and making people aware that they do not need to suffer in silence.

People with diagnosed mental health issues may be regarded as having a disability under the Equality Act 2010, which states that it is unlawful for a disabled person to be treated less favourably because of their disability, without a justifiable reason. The act states that it is unlawful for employers to fail to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate a worker with a disability. ‘Reasonable adjustments’ for somebody with mental health issues may include:

  • allowing flexible working;
  • facilitating the handover of certain tasks to another employee for the short-, medium- or long-term;
  • encouraging a trusted colleague to make themselves available for chats, when needed;
  • ensuring that there is a place for the employee to take a break, when needed.

By calling the Health for Work Adviceline (www.health4work.nhs.uk), employers can get immediate, free access to occupational health professionals who can offer guidance on supporting an employee with mental health problems, fulfilling legislative responsibilities, and keeping staff healthy and productive (0800 0 77 88 44).

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