According to the Mental Health Foundation, more than one in seven people are experiencing mental health problems in the workplace, while nearly 13% of all days taken off sick can be ascribed to mental health conditions.
Yet the problem doesn't magically end as soon as people plonk themselves back in the hot seat again. Having been signed off, even those with the most common complaints – anxiety, depression, stress and adjustment disorders – will need support getting back on their feet.
But it seems that support, crucial as it is, simply may not be there.
When the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) funded researchers from a university in the Netherlands to explore the subject, they found that people experienced a range of barriers to returning to work. These included: poor relationships with, and lack of support from, line managers; a perceived lack of trust in them on the part of management; the sense that management would really prefer to dismiss them; and a workload that was either too heavy and high-pressure workload, or not challenging enough.
But such support is crucial, and not just for the individual: it will boost the health of your business too. The Mental Health Foundation says better mental health support could save UK business up to £8 billion a year.
‘Good employment is beneficial for people’s health, especially for their mental health,’ says Shelley Frost, director of strategic development at IOSH. ‘And positive feelings about work have been linked with higher productivity, profitability and customer and worker loyalty.’
So why has it been neglected? It’s unlikely people simply don’t care. Traditionally, however, mental health may have been something an employer wouldn't be comfortable discussing at work – for, if nothing else, it's hard to know when it's suitable to cross personal boundaries.
And if it's uncomfortable for the line manager, it's safe to say that feeling extends to the person in question too.
Here are a few suggestions of how to go help people back into work…
• Be personal. Don't go with a one-size-fits-all policy for getting people back to their role. Each person will have a different set of needs, as well as a unique relationship to their inner world, and the workplace and people in it. Make it right for them and it will pay off.
• Empower your supervisors. Dealing with people’s personal issues at work is never easy for a line manager. But it's less intimidating when they’re given the knowledge and skills to support people as much as they'd like to.
• Make it a team effort. The returnee, their supervisor and a relevant occupational health expert should work together on a return-to-work plan that provides a timetable of clear steps. That way everyone can track progress.
• Know who you're talking to. Workers may need help gaining self-awareness and insight into their own values, needs and wishes, and be alert to those who seem to engage less with this kind of process. They’ll need your help too.
• Get comfortable with it. Encouraging leaders to be more vulnerable in the workplace would gives others permission to open up about their mental health concerns too, and help erase people’s commonly-held fear that these issues could put their job at risk.
• Improve your environment. Take small steps to balance the pressures of work by providing healthy eating options, enforced fresh air breaks, exercise plans, even plants and natural light in the workspace. It’s a fundamental investment – one that won’t just help people but will boost your productivity too.
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