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Dealing with mental illness in the workplace

Written by Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce | 10 Jan 2019

Whether you’ve experienced mental health issues yourself or have watched a relative, friend or colleague suffer, it’s likely that mental illness has touched your life at some point.

Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD…

We’re all familiar with these terms. We know what they mean and maybe even what they look like. Yet what we find most difficult is dealing with them.

Right now, 1 in 6 workers is suffering from mental health problems and in 2016, this accounted for 45% of all lost working days in 2016.

In the workplace, we are making headway in shining a light on the issue, breaking the stigma, and supporting those suffering, but there is still room for improvement.

When employees enjoy optimal mental and physical health, they are likely to be more positive, focused, motivated and satisfied at work.

In this post, we tackle the somewhat challenging topic of mental illness in the workplace, how to help staff in need, and how to promote an environment of support.

Out of sight, out of mind

There’s a common misconception that if we can’t see an illness it simply doesn’t exist.

This misconception encourages a stigma that mental illness is not as serious as a physical condition and therefore not worth addressing.

This can lead to discrimination, isolation and even bullying. It also means people find it uncomfortable sharing or approaching the subject which can lead to further difficulties, particularly for sufferers themselves. This might lead to higher absenteeism, conflict between members of staff, and a significant drop in motivation and performance.

Shining a light on mental health and addressing stigma is the first step. Having the confidence to speak up sooner means employees can get the help they need sooner.

A culture of support

A recent survey conducted by MIND reveals that one in five people felt they couldn’t tell their boss if they were overwhelmed or overly stressed at work. And, more alarmingly, less than half of people diagnosed with a mental health problem had told their manager.

It’s important to foster a culture of support and understanding so that employees have the confidence to talk openly and approach the topic of mental health, not just for themselves, but for colleagues who might display symptoms of mental illness. The more we promote a culture of support, the easier it will be for employees to tackle an illness, and return to work healthy and recovered.

Start the conversation

However, the key is to open the dialogue. From the moment you spot signs that a colleague may be suffering from mental illness to an extent, it’s important that you signify to the company that you as a business and as an employer are open to addressing mental health issues with ease and openness. Secondly, it’s important you start the conversation.

The NHS has compiled this list of possible phrasing to make starting the conversation easier:

  • How are you doing at the moment?

  • You seem a bit down / upset / under pressure / frustrated / angry.

  • Is everything OK?

  • I’ve noticed you’ve been arriving late recently and I wondered if you’re OK.

  • I’ve noticed the reports are late when they’re usually on time.  Is everything OK?

  • Is there anything I can do to help?

  • What support do you think might help?

Workplace adjustments

Within reason, adjustments to the usual working schedule can be helpful in aiding recovery and make the return to work manageable and comfortable. Depression medication, for example, can cause lapses in energy levels and sufferers could benefit from afternoon naps or breaks. Facilitating and providing an environment that is conducive to recovery and mental wellbeing will enable employees to return to work. Some examples of workplace adjustments include:

  • Flexible hours

  • Re-evaluation of role and responsibilities

  • Changes to the workspace (quieter, more or less collaborative)

  • Changes to break and lunch times (for example, splitting the lunch break throughout the day to allow for more frequent periods of rest)

  • Phased in return-to-work (building hours back up gradually)

  • Provision of quiet rooms

Compassion, empathy and knowledge are vital components in being able to create a workplace and culture that supports employees during their darkest struggles. In creating a culture of support, employees will naturally feel more comfortable returning to work after a period of mental illness, or just coping with work in general.

MIND offers some excellent resources for employees and individuals with regards to all areas of mental health. There is also some great guidance available on the Health and Safety Executive website should you require further information.


Topics: Mental health

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