Avoiding the escalation of mental health problems at work

Mental illness is increasingly becoming a very real concern for businesses and one that affects productivity and the ability of organisations to meet their goals. Line managers will routinely face day-to-day management issues which are directly impacted by the mental health of their employees. Various reasons have been put forward for the increase in mental health problems in the workplace, including:

  • an increase in workplace stress due to the economic downturn, rising job insecurity and increased pressures on employees to perform to their best ability in order to retain their jobs;
  • the increased use of complex technology, which means added pressure on employees to keep up with technological developments and be able to work more quickly, efficiently and productively;
  • problems outside work that can negatively impact on a person’s ability to cope at work (e.g. domestic issues, financial or relationship problems, etc.).

It is becoming increasingly important for employers/line managers (and colleagues) to be able to recognise mental health problems and know how to offer support to those who are suffering from mental illness. Despite the fact that the World Health Organization has estimated that depression will rank as the second-leading cause of disability in the world by the year 2020, mental ill health has been stigmatised, which prevents many sufferers from coming forward to discuss their problems.

Because of this stigma, MIND (the leading mental health charity for England and Wales) describes workplace stress as the ‘elephant in the room’: it exists but, all too often, it is ignored. It is testament to how seriously mental health in the workplace is being taken that the MINDFUL EMPLOYER initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness of mental health at work and providing support for businesses in recruiting and retaining staff, is constantly getting more signatories to its Charter for Employers who are Positive about Mental Health. Organisations that have signed up to this charter (a voluntary agreement seeking to support employers in working within the spirit of its positive approach to mental health) employ more than one-and-a-quarter million employees in the UK.

Sadly, struggling with mental health issues becomes too much for some people. Some can have suicidal thoughts and others go on to act on those thoughts and attempt suicide. In 2009, 5,675 people in the UK committed suicide (Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2011). In recent decades the number of young men committing suicide has increased whilst suicides among women have fallen, although the reason for this is not fully understood.

In many suicides there has been a long history of mental health problems, mainly:

  • depression;
  • eating disorders;
  • schizophrenia.

In some cases, however, there may be no recorded history of mental health issues, which makes it much harder for others to predict a suicide attempt. It may be that changes in a person’s life could be enough to lead someone to attempt suicide without there being any known history of mental illness, e.g.:

  • relationship breakdown;
  • having to face up to debt or a court case;
  • loss of a job or home;
  • acute or chronic physical illness;
  • alcohol or drug abuse;
  • social isolation.

Where there is concern for somebody’s mental state, or where a person has implied that they may be considering suicide, it can be very difficult to know how best to support the person and ensure that they get the help they need. Other than listening to what the person has to say (without making judgements or trying to offer solutions), and letting them express their worries and their concerns, it is best not to try to do anything without having sought professional guidance first. Encourage the person to seek help as soon as possible from their doctor, or help them access local counselling services or charities such as The Samaritans. Where there is concern that a person is in immediate danger, it is advisable to call the emergency services (999). Guidance on where to go for help can be sought from the Health for Work Adviceline on 0800 0 77 88 44.

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