How should HR go about helping staff with depression? Emma Mamo gives us some tips.
We all have mental health just as we have physical health – it moves up and down along a spectrum from good to poor. Considering how much time we spend at work, it’s not surprising that our jobs can affect our wellbeing.
Mental health problems are very common, and are also on the rise, in no small part due to the economic downturn. Right now, 1 in 6 workers is dealing with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or stress [Office of National Statistics (2001), Psychiatric morbidity among adults living in private households in Great Britain, The Stationery Office]. Forty-four percent of employers have seen an increase in reported mental health problems in the last 12 months [Absence Management annual survey report 2012, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, in partnership with Simplyhealth (October 2012)]. Nearly one quarter of respondents to a recent Mind survey said that in their current role, job insecurity was either very or quite stressful [Populus poll for Mind of 2,060 adults in England and Wales in employment – polled between 6 and 10 March 2013].
Given this significant and increasing prevalence, every organisation in Britain – no matter how small or large - will be affected by mental health problems, so it’s something employers can’t afford to ignore. One of the most common mental health problems is depression, affecting one in ten people at any one time.
Depression describes a range of symptoms from a period of low spirits that makes coping with normal tasks harder, to life-threatening thoughts and behaviours that can make it impossible to function. Someone experiencing depression may find it difficult to be motivated to complete tasks – including seemingly simple things like getting to work on time. They may be irritable, easily frustrated or find it difficult to make decisions. Depression often means someone is less likely to want to discuss their thoughts, feelings or behaviour, which can lead others to misinterpret common symptoms as laziness or unprofessionalism.
The causes of depression vary, but possible factors include life events, physical conditions, medication, stress and lack of sleep. Pressures in the workplace – for example fear of redundancy, long hours, dealing with difficult people or situations, or unreasonable targets – can both cause and worsen depression. Although employees may not want to discuss these problems, it is important to consider how they can be addressed to assist the person’s recovery as people who have experienced a mental health problem can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace.
Mentally healthy workplaces
Employers need to be proactive in managing the mental health of all their staff, whether they are experiencing a problem or not. Smart employers know that organisations are only as strong as their people and that the experiences, wellbeing and motivation of each worker are fundamental to how the organisation performs as a whole. By positively managing and supporting employees’ mental wellbeing, employers can ensure that staff perform to their potential – allowing the business to achieve peak performance.
Studies show that organisations with higher levels of employee engagement benefit from better productivity, profitability and stronger staff commitment. In the public sector, this brings better outcomes and better quality customer service [Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement [PDF, 972KB], David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (July 2009)] .
Mind’s ‘Taking Care of Business’ campaign helps people understand and start talking about mental wellbeing in the workplace. Mind is working closely with employers to give them the tools and confidence to support employees’ mental health. Our three-pronged approach enables employers to effectively manage and support workplace mental wellbeing by:
- promoting wellbeing for all staff
- tackling the causes of work-related mental health problems
- supporting staff who are experiencing mental health problems
How HR can help
HR has a vital role to play in supporting an employee with a mental health problem – whether they are in work, off work or returning to work.
Creating an open dialogue leads to a system of support and understanding between employers and employees. Generally a common-sense approach based on open communication and good people-management is all that is required. The rules of thumb are:
- Encourage people to talk – create an open environment where people feel able to have a dialogue about their wellbeing, and even disclose a diagnosed mental health problem should they wish. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different. Focus on the person, not the problem and ask open questions about their triggers for distress and what support they need.
- Avoid making assumptions – don’t try to guess what symptoms an employee might have and how these might affect their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.
- Respect confidentiality – remember mental health information is highly confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively impact an individual’s mental health.
- Respond flexibly – because mental health problems affect everyone in different ways and at different times in their lives, adapt your support to suit the individual. Developing a personalised action plan can help.
Working together, the employee and line manager can produce an action plan to help manage their mental wellbeing at work. This involves exploring what workplace triggers may contribute to their mental health problem and developing tailored support to offset this.
The plan should cover:
- the impact of the individual’s mental health problem on performance
- workplace triggers and early warning signs
- steps for both line manager and employee to take
If someone is experiencing a mental health problem such as depression they may need the employer to make adjustments. Often this is about changes to attitude and culture rather than a costly intervention. Typical adjustments include:
- Flexible hours or change to start/finish time
- Change of workspace
- Return-to-work policies such as a phased return
- Changes to role which can be temporary or permanent
- Changes to break times perhaps splitting the lunch hour into three 20 minute blocks
- Increased support from managers to help prioritise and manage workload
- Provision of quiet rooms to take some time out if needed
If someone is off work due to a mental health problem, it’s important to maintain regular communication about how they are and how they can come back. A return-to-work plan allows you to explore any adjustments to their role or support measures that you could put in place. Discussing these in advance also provides reassurance to the employee that their contribution is valued and that their needs will be met on their return.