With mental health having shot up the agenda in recent years, it’s concerning to observe that most employers have yet to fully understand what it takes to help staff with mental health issues to recover. Perhaps even more alarming is that many fail to identify the onset of such an issue to start with, so they’re unable to help nip it in the bud.
The result is that common mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety and depression, are now not only the largest cause of sickness absence but also record-high presenteeism levels – where people turn up to work but are too sick to perform.
Clearly, existing approaches to tackling the problem aren’t working, so what should employers be doing differently?
In the first instance, we need to stop treating mental health issues like physical health issues. Although time off work and rest typically helps someone with the flu to recover, mental health issues typically get worse and more difficult to address the longer they’re left untreated.
That’s because most mental health issues are like windscreen chips: sometimes you can drive around for a while before a crack appears, but they need a quick repair to avoid them turning into something much worse.
For example, an acute stress issue can all too easily evolve into feelings of low mood, then bouts of depression, then one-off absences, then feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, finally ending up with the employee signed off as long-term sick. Creating a much more entrenched problem than the initial anxiety, which could have been resolved with as little as a counselling session to encourage the employee to see ‘failure’ as a growth opportunity, or recharge their resilience batteries to stay healthy during a difficult time.
Even though we know this about mental health, most employers are still in the habit of adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, doing little or nothing to support someone at the earliest onset of a problem. The result is that managers – the people typically best placed to spot when someone’s starting to struggle – are effectively encouraged to turn a blind eye to the signs of emotional distress, until the problem becomes so serious it can no longer be ignored.
Not only should no one be left to struggle in this way, but costly presenteeism issues can be prevented by encouraging managers to intervene at the earliest opportunity.
Critical to this is helping managers view looking after their team’s mental health as part of their overall people responsibilities and putting in place appropriate support services – be this via HR, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or charity helpline – so that managers don’t get drawn into personally attempting to counsel others or solve their problems for them.
As well as preventing acute mental health issues, such as stress and anxiety, from deteriorating and becoming chronic, this sort of intervention creates a culture where people see colleagues being helped and supported, making them feel safe to ask for help themselves should the need arise.
This is important because being human means that things happen to us – things that for the most part we can cope with but which, now and again, cause cracks to rise to the surface.
Employers who ignore these initial cracks make a costly mistake: they assume the next person will be different, but until they have a timely process in place for helping individuals to recover as soon as they start to struggle, the chances are the same thing will happen over and over again.
Karen Matovu is head of mental health training at Validium