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Janine Milne

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Ask the Expert: strategies for mental wellbeing

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The statistics are stark: one in four British adults will suffer at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, according to The Office for National Statistics.

Yet, despite the prevalence of people suffering from stress, depression and other mental illnesses, there is such a huge stigma around mental health that many people are worried about the effect on their careers of admitting they have a problem. 
 
HRzone talked to consultant psychiatrist Dr William Shanahan, medical director at Capio Nightingale Hospital, about what HR professionals and individuals themselves can do to keep healthy.
 
HRZWhat’s been the effect of the recession and continuing economic instability on the mental health of workers?

WS: There is no doubt that the global economic climate has contributed to a significant rise in the number of patients suffering from mental health issues.
 
From the moment the crisis began, we have seen a marked rise in the number of patients seeking help and advice about mental health – we’ve come to refer to it as Square Mile Syndrome. Square Mile Syndrome was first coined by Capio Nightingale Hospital in 2008, when the economic crisis first broke to describe the vast surge in the number of City workers seeking help for mental health issues, particularly stress and anxiety related conditions.
 
What is interesting is that it isn’t simply stress, anxiety and depression related disorders that we are seeing, an increasing dependence on drug and alcohol is also evident as these are common ‘coping mechanisms’ for employees under extreme pressure, whilst eating disorders such as bulimia also become more prevalent.
 
But what concerns me is that there are also undoubtedly a number of workers who are suffering from mental illness but who are too worried about the consequences on their career to seek professional help. It is imperative to seek treatment as soon as possible to ensure the best possible chances of recovery. 
 
HRZ: What can HR professionals and line managers do to support people with mental health issues?

WS: It is important the human resources team really lead the way here – it’s up to them to take an enlightened and proactive approach to employee mental wellbeing. That way, they will reduce the strain on employees thus reducing both the physical and ‘emotional’ costs in treating conditions. 
 
The appraisal process plays a central role here. To my mind, it should be less focused on results and outcomes and place a greater emphasis on capability and the ability to cope under changing circumstances. In this environment, it would be easier to address any issues that might be compromising the mental health of employees before they escalate.
 
It’s up to all line managers and employers to keep their eyes and ears open in the workplace and to encourage staff to be open about their problems so that should any early signs of mental illness or relapse emerge, the employee can expect a sympathetic and understanding response from their bosses.
 
HRZ: What can people do to help themselves?
 
WS: There are so many straightforward steps that can be taken to dramatically reduce the consequences of stress on our emotional wellbeing and mental health. I would advise everyone to look at the amount of good quality sleep they are getting, to ensure that they exercise regularly and have a balanced, nutrition rich diet and that they avoid resorting to artificial stimulants such as nicotine, drugs and alcohol. They may sound like simple techniques, but sleep, nutrition and taking care of your physical wellbeing are the cornerstones of good mental health too.
 
HRZ: Is there still a stigma attached to discussing mental health issues in the workplace?
 
WS: Sadly, yes and I think that it stems from a lack of understanding. There is a tremendous fear of discrimination and that admitting to a mental illness will jeopardise both long-term and short-term career prospects for the individual involved. There is also considerable ignorance when it comes to the recovery process.
 
In the absence of any external sign – patients aren’t bandaged, there is no plaster of Paris – there is a tendency for employers to assume that any symptoms might be being exaggerated if not invented and to compromise recovery by making demands on the individual’s time such as asking them to work from home.
 
With any luck, this new Bill [The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill] – once it becomes law – will help to alter this mindset and promote a much-needed cultural shift.
 
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