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Effects of medication in the workplace – report

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New research published by the Health and Safety Executive looks at the effects of medication prescribed for anxiety and depression on working life. It was commissioned by HSE in response to an increase in the numbers of people suffering with anxiety and depression in recent years, leading to widespread use of medication to treat these conditions. Known side effects can include further anxiety, sleep disruption, tiredness, fatigue, nausea and headaches.

The research involved focus groups of employees who had suffered anxiety and depression. The data collected included personal experiences of mental health problems and the impact of their medication. Focus groups were also held with staff from human resources, occupational health and health and safety departments to explore employers’ views and practices in connection with mental-ill health among their staff. The study covered a wide range of work sectors (health care, social services, education, manufacturing, engineering, retail, service industries etc).

Findings

Anxiety, depression and the medication prescribed by doctors to treat these conditions appear to affect work performance. Sufferers described a variety of accidents and near misses believed to be due to their condition or the side effects of medication.

Workers with responsibilities for others, such as teachers, doctors or managers seem to present a particular risk to safety in the workplace. For example, doctors described situations in which they may have placed themselves and their patients at risk when making clinical decisions or carrying out medical procedures such as taking blood samples. Electricians and mechanics described how they had to repeatedly check their work, as they were aware that they could endanger lives.

Failing to take medication as prescribed was commonplace due to unpleasant side effects, lack of improvement of symptoms, or because the medication made people feel worse at first. Individuals were often unprepared for the effects of their medication and would have welcomed better information from doctors and pharmacists.

Drawing on the evidence collected, the report makes recommendations for the prevention and management of anxiety and depression in the workplace, as well as outlining areas for improvement in health care.

The findings also indicate that mental health problems are not well understood by employers and managers, with little support in the workplace for individuals suffering from anxiety or depression.

Professor Cheryl Haslam who led the research said: “People suffering with anxiety and depression experience great difficulties at work managing their symptoms and dealing with unpleasant side effects of their medication. Many were unprepared for the fact that it can take two or three weeks before they see improvement in their symptoms after starting medication. Patients need more information from GPs about the medication and side effects, so they know what to expect.”

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