Thursday, 19 March 2015

Cost effective ways to promote health at work - no. 2 of 5 - Reduce Stress & support staff with depression

"There is a significant risk that employers will lose out on skills and experience unless mental health is better understood and managed"
Joanne Hindle, Director of Corporate Services, Unum

Whilst Activ Absence are the experts in absence management software, reducing absence amongst your valuable people encompasses far more than just software, so we are sharing other ways to reduce absence by tackling key issues for employers.

This weeks cost effective ways to reduce absence by promoting health at work focuses on ways employers can tackle mental illnesses and stress at work.

MIND (the leading mental health charity) report on their website that 1 in 6 workers in the UK are suffering from an illness affecting their mental health such as stress or depression.   

As previously reported, employers have legal obligations under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities, under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, to take measures to control that risk, and under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.  The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) applies as much to people with mental ill health as it does to those with a physical disability.    

What is stress?

Stress is an outdated mechanism in our bodies, the fight or flight response was perfect when we lived very simply and needed to guard against the very real danger of being eaten alive by a predator.  The sudden injection of adrenaline into the bloodstream was quickly dispersed as we ran or fought the predator as appropriate.

Very few of us need this physical response, modern life ensures that we very rarely meet real danger.  However we do still meet challenges and unfortunately, our bodies have not learned to distinguish the panic that comes from trying to meet an urgent deadline, the frustration we feel sitting in traffic on the way to work, or the necessity to juggle competing priorities between work, family and home life.   These things still result in the same adrenaline release but without the physical response to disperse it.

Most of us don't physically 'do' anything to disperse this chemical release, so the chemical runs around our bloodstream causing us to feel 'stressed'.  This is a very physical condition we all share, however people's ability to deal with it varies and as our workloads at home and work increase, so too are the numbers of people we see off work due to an inability to manage their stress.    

Employers are not expected to be counsellors and it is not their job to replace advice from professionals, however there are steps they can take to help support employees suffering or at risk of suffering from stress.  These include:

Operate a family friendly policy.  

Gone are the days where women stay home and men work long hours to support the family.  Socio-economic changes over the last century mean that both sexes often need to work full time to support the family financially, so your people are often juggling home and work commitments.  

New shared parental leave entitlements now formally recognise that childcare is now often shared between men and women in our modern society.  If you don't already offer flexitime, part time or job-sharing options, look into these - not only does it give you chance to help reduce some of the stress on your current employees, it also gives you access to a new talent market of excellent people who would be unwilling to take a full time job.

Educate your staff about mental wellbeing

There is still a big stigma attached to mental illness, so staff suffering from depression are unlikely to tell their employers until it becomes so bad that they need time off.  By promoting a culture of support and understanding you help staff identify colleagues in need of support.  This can be as simple as having leaflets from local mental health charities in staff areas, or taking it further and bringing in expert staff training from charities such as MIND.  

Allow enough time for major policy changes. 

Research has shown that the average employee needs six to nine months to effectively prepare for and accept worksite policy changes.   Make sure you give your staff enough lead-time to prepare for major policy changes such as changes to working hours or breaks.

Set reasonable deadlines for completion of tasks

Line managers should be aware of the time it takes to complete tasks by the 'average' worker, by planning in advance and working strategically, most tasks can be set for completion without undue rushing.  By setting a good example, line managers can also encourage staff to set reasonable, achievable goals and work in a structured way.

Re-allocation of workload for stressed staff

Look at spreading non core tasks throughout the team to reduce work pressure on people showing signs of stress.    

It is important to remember when doing this that you also need to manage the wellbeing of the rest of the team as well as the employee concerned.

Try too to identify potential sources of stress with the aim to audit, prevent and manage them.

Rehabilitate people who have been off with stress

For workers who have been off with stress, the mere act of coming back into the office is likely to be stressful, suggests getting the staff member to call in for an informal coffee before returning to ease them back in.  They also suggest a phased return, gradually increasing hours.

Employers should also encourage staff to attend medical appointments, and also ask the employee how they are settling back in, and ask them what support they need from you as an employer.

Finally make sure you update the returning employee on any new workplace issues and discussing what "reasonable adjustments" to their work or workplace can be made under the Disability Discrimination Act.  For example, some employees on medication for stress will be tired first thing in the morning, so changing their hours to accommodate this would be helpful.

Seek external help when needed

Official sources are now better at recognising that many workers with mental health can and do continue to work.  There are official programmes to help if you are looking to employ someone new who is suffering with severe stress or any other mental illness such as depression.  The Disability Employment Advisers or DEA at your local Jobcentre Plus can supply specialist support on employment issues.

Charities Shaw Trust and MIND are also useful sources of information 

Promote a healthy workplace

Disability experts at Shaw Trust recommend taking the following simple steps to promote a healthy culture for your staff:

  • Ensure there is time for staff to feedback how they are feeling in meetings or at reviews and appraisals
  • Monitor stress at work
  • Be willing to talk openly with employees
  • Provide information about your company
  • Create a no-blame culture
  • Encourage clear, open and honest communication
  • Be positive about reasonable adjustments
  • Provide training on how to recognise mental health issues see additional support
  • Create a pleasant environment to work in, try adding plants and pictures
  • Ensure staff take their lunch breaks and monitor working hours
  • Arrange occasional team building events

Develop a Mental Health Policy 

Every company should think about developing a mental health policy.    Some free guidance as to how to do this is available at, although we recommend you discuss this with your HR manager.

The policy should outline a commitment to promoting and monitoring mental health at work, and acknowledge the importance of creating a "safe environment" for employees and their mental wellbeing i.e. using reasonable efforts to ensure the workplace is free from bullying and harassment. The policy should stress what can be done to support staff with mental health problems and cover the area of employing people with mental health problems.

When converting the policy into practice it's important to consider that it needs to be supported by senior management who will effectively communicate it to all employees. Ensure staff know who to approach in the first instance for help. Bring in awareness training around mental health for staff and continue to monitor the effectiveness of the policy.

LISA BAKER LLB, MIPTI, DIP (Vibrational Medicine), Cert IHM

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