Let’s talk about the silent boss in your head.
In today’s day and age, mental illness is the leading cause of long-term absence at the workplace in most developed countries. Poor mental health causes over 70 million working days to be lost every year (UK Chief Medical Officer, 2013). This ranges from the most commonly experienced symptoms of stress and anxiety, to the more complex mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental illness is also associated with high levels of presenteeism, where an employee remains at work despite the symptoms that contribute to lower productivity. This makes the issue of workplace mental health a major personal, health and economic matter.
Every year, 1 in 5 people suffer from a mental illness. Most commonly, it is depression or anxiety, but it could also include bipolar disorder and other psychotic disorders. Given that most adults spend a good amount of their time at work, it should come as no surprise that the work environment plays a significant role in their psychological health and well-being. Not only does poor mental health affect the employee, it also affects the employers — including increased staff turnover, absence in sickness, burnout and exhaustion, decreased motivation and less productivity.
The stigma attached to having a psychiatric disorder is such that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment, especially in the current economic climate, out of fear that they might jeopardise their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but aren’t sure how to do so. Clinicians may find themselves in unfamiliar territories, as they would be simultaneously trying to treat a patient while providing advice about dealing with the illness at work. As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognised and untreated, not only damaging an individual’s health and career, but also reducing productivity at work.
There are many risk factors present in a workplace environment. Risks to mental health include — inadequate health and safety policies, poor communication and management practices, low control over one’s area of work, inflexible working hours, harassment, discrimination at the workplace and lack of resources to do the job efficiently. Bullying and psychological harassment are the commonly reported causes of work-related stress by workers and these present risks to the health of workers. They are associated with both psychological and physical problems.
An important element of achieving a healthy workplace is the development of governmental legislation, strategies and policies in this area. A healthy workplace is defined as one where the workers and the management actively contribute to the work environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees and co-workers. Organisations can also help to create a healthy workplace by following some steps. These include creating awareness to promote better mental health and understanding the opportunities and needs of the employees, in order to help develop better policies for workplace mental health.
Employers too can support and protect their employees’ well-being by considering the following measures — flexible work hours, effective managers trained in mental health, raising awareness and creating an open culture to discuss mental health, involvement of employees in decision making, introducing stress risk management procedures, providing access to employee assistance programmes and occupational health, introduction of performance management process and conducting return to work interviews.
Interventions and good practices that protect and promote mental health in the workplace can be used as well. Mental health interventions should be delivered as part of an integrated health and well-being strategy that covers prevention, early identification, support and rehabilitation. Occupational health services or professionals may support organisations in implementing these interventions where they are available, but even when they are not, a number of changes can be made that may protect and promote mental health.
Organisations have a responsibility to support individuals with mental disorders in either continuing or returning to work. Research shows that unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, can have a detrimental impact on mental health. Many of the initiatives outlined above may help individuals with mental disorders. In particular, flexible hours, job-redesign, addressal of negative workplace dynamics, and supportive and confidential communication with management can help people with mental disorders to continue or return to work. Access to evidence-based treatments has been shown to be beneficial for depression and other mental disorders. Because of the stigma associated with mental disorders, employers need to ensure that individuals feel supported and able to ask for support in continuing with or returning to work, and are provided with the necessary resources to do their job.
Let’s counter the silent boss.
Feature Image Credit: rawpixel.com on Unsplash
Anoushka Thakkar is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.
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