This article was written by Joy Reymond, Head of Rehabilitation at Unum.
The Mental Health Discrimination Bill came into force this week, but many employers are unsure how to handle depression, stress and mental illness at work.
As of this week, the restrictions preventing people with mental health conditions from serving as Members of Parliament, members of the devolved legislatures, jurors, or company directors, have been rescinded. The Mental Health Discrimination Bill’s passage is widely accepted to be a vital step towards reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. But away from the business of government, the judiciary and the board room, many employers are unsure how to handle mental health issues.
As with physical ailments, the best way to deal with this effectively is to intervene before it becomes too serious. For example, many workplace protection policies not only support employees that have taken a period of absence, but also include an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which helps support staff as soon as symptoms appear. This helps the employee, but also the employer, helping them minimise business impact and avoid the potential loss of vital skills or experience.
There is far less understanding and attention given to mental health than physical ailments such as musculoskeletal problems and cancer. However, Unum’s data shows that depression and stress represent the highest number of Income Protection claims – more than 30 percent. It is estimated that at least one in four people experience a mental health problem at some point in their life (Time to Change: Family Matters, 2010), yet 42 percent of employers are still underestimating the prevalence of mental health in their workplace (ShawTrust 2010). So how should employers react if a worker is experiencing mental health problems?
The first step in any successful intervention is to discuss the issues with the employee. Simply having an open conversation can have a huge impact, helping sufferers to feel supported.
The second step must be to consider their role and whether any modification to their duties would be beneficial – or possible. It’s a common misconception that those experiencing mental health issues will always need time off work. While that is undoubtedly true in some cases, in many others, worthwhile and fulfilling employment can ensure people have a sense of purpose and feel part of a team.
That said, excessive workloads or a stressful environment can exacerbate any problems. Making sure there is a constant dialogue between the employee, HR team and line manager will help in judging any changes to a role, allowing employers to strike the right balance so the employee feels both productive and valued.
It’s important to recognise that staff may be reluctant to talk about the issues. A 2011 Time to Change survey of people with mental health problems found 67 percent did not tell their employer because of fears about the reaction. And they may well be right – research on hiring practices reveals that around 40 percent of employers were found to view workers with such conditions as a “significant risk” (ShawTrust 2010). If employees are not forthcoming, the practical impact on employers is that problems may only come to light later on when more serious interventions are necessary.
This unwitting prejudice means that employees who are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, have the added worry about job security, and a considered benefits package is therefore particularly invaluable in reducing this stressor. Private medical insurance can help with the financial cost of treatment, and Income Protection (IP) provides security of income in the event of long term illness. They also have the less tangible, but equally important benefit of reassuring sufferers, and their colleagues, that they won’t face financial difficulties as a result of their conditions.
Tackling mental health is undoubtedly a societal issue – according to the Mental Health Foundation, 80 percent of sufferers have experienced stigma and discrimination. All parties have a role to play; from government to employers, charities to individuals, and different organisations can all help in different ways.
We support the Government’s cross-department “No Health Without Mental Health” initiative, which aims to boost understanding of the needs of people with mental health conditions. Charities have developed some fantastic initiatives to raise awareness: Unum is supporting the Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends national campaign, which aims to give 1 million people an improved awareness of the condition by 2015. These organisations, along with protection providers and occupational health experts, can all provide guidance to help translate general best practice into practical support on specific cases.
Fundamentally however, the key for employers is to heed the example the Mental Health Discrimination Bill sets and recognise that effective management of mental health issues is no different than for physical conditions. Creating dialogue and demonstrating understanding are vital.