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Tackling mental health: Five tips for creating a mentally healthy workplace

More than 12 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, according to the Health and Safety Executive. Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF Occupational Health, offers his top tips for developing a mentally positive workplace.

1. Understand the scale of the problem

According to figures from Mind, the mental health charity, one in four people experience a mental health problem each year, while the NHS suggests one in six suffer from a more common issue, such as anxiety or depression, in any given week. Yet, for many business owners and HR Managers, incidents of poor mental health in the workplace can be few and far between. This is hindered in no small part by the unreliability of self-reporting. Just under half (42%) of employees in our latest study admitted to calling in sick citing a physical illness, when in fact, it was a mental health issue. Stress, anxiety and depression were the three most common conditions that were being concealed. We suggest not to take the self-reported reason at face value. Regular incidents of ‘physical’ illness could be concealing a deeper problem.

2. Look for the early warning signs

Despite often being concealed by employees, mental health problems do not suddenly materialise. The vast majority of individuals suffering from poor mental health will show signs that can be spotted in the workplace. Three common warning signs of poor mental health include: poor attendance and timekeeping, becoming easily distracted, and losing a sense of enjoyment or spark. Many people will describe someone presenting with poor mental health as ‘not seeming themselves’. In such cases, employers should encourage a clinical diagnosis as early as possible.

3. Create an open environment

Employees can often feel worried about raising issues of mental health. As a result, it’s integral that the organisation instigates a culture that is both open and enabling, whereby people feel they can engage and discuss issues with colleagues, management or designated individuals. For many, reluctance to discuss a mental health issue with their manager is exacerbated by the fear it will harm promotional prospects, result in poor grading during assessment, or be seen as weakening a team. To combat this, organisations need to promote an open culture. The provision of mental health first aiders in particular, can encourage more open conversations, therefore challenging the stigma associated with mental health.

4. Get on the front foot

Early intervention is key. Failure to act on issues such as these often means that conditions deteriorate to a crisis level before employers intervene. An individual may be in denial about the issues they are facing, or think that their poor mental health is just a phase, but the danger is that the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. Action taken at the earliest stage tends to be the most effective way of resolving the issue and preventing deterioration. This ensures that the employee’s health and wellbeing is prioritised, and that they are able to remain a productive part of the workforce.

5. Access outside support

By using an occupational health service, employers can action an early referral, rather than waiting until the employee is signed off from work. An occupational health referral doesn’t mean that an employee has to tell their employer everything; it merely acknowledges a concern and offers the opportunity to discuss the situation with a medical professional. Occupational health is covered by the ethical codes of confidentiality, so an employee can discuss their mental state in confidence.

Even if an employer doesn’t have an arrangement with an occupational health provider, the service can be accessed as and when required. Many small employers are members of federations for guidance and advice, and SMEs can often contact their federation for access to a specialist and occupational health advice.

For more advice and best practice on creating an open culture contact your IHC consultant or BHSF

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