Opinion — 01 March 2012

Psychological disorders are often referred to as ‘invisible’; however, the impact they create on the workplace is anything but.

Untreated mental illness costs the Australian economy $5.9 billion annually in lost productivity.

Whether it be those suffering from depression, anxiety or any other mental health concern, the difficulties involved in working successfully under those conditions are extremely difficult. Productivity, workplace satisfaction, team cohesion and overall effectiveness are all negatively affected by such conditions. They contribute to conflict, accidents, injuries and incidents.

One manifestation of this is presenteeism; a concept that involves those employees who turn up but can’t function at the level they are required to or are otherwise expected.

Not to mention the costs of sick leave, stress level or worker’s compensation that occurs when someone becomes unwell.

In fact, the largest demographic of individuals in receipt of the Disability Support Pension are those experiencing a mental illness, at approx 28 per cent. They are expected to exceed 50 per cent of all claims administered within the next five years.

Thankfully this issue is starting to attract a lot of attention in the corporate world and steps are being taken to rectify this dilemma.

What can be done about it?

The following tips have been taken from “Psychological Health and Safety: An Action Guide for Employers”, produced by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Make managing mental health disorders in the workplace a high priority.
This should be based on a solid business case that demonstrates the relevance of worker mental health to organizational priorities and strategic plans. Support from senior management for these efforts needs to be clearly communicated throughout the organization.

Measure the impact of psychological disorders in the workplace.
The most obvious indicators are things like absenteeism, number of long term disability cases and benefits costs. These so-called trailing indicators are very important, but may not reflect some of the subtler signs such as grievances, injuries or accidents, ‘flaming out’ or unexpected loss of skilled staff, team conflict or low morale.

Identify the risks to employee psychological health.
Rising costs and regulatory requirements have helped pave the way for organizations to make strong advances and progress in identifying and addressing workplace factors that contribute to worker physical illness and injury. There are a number of useful tools available to accomplish this.

Address identified workplace and workforce hazards.
This should entail interventions aimed at both minimizing the presence or impact of organizational hazards while at the same time supporting the workforce is building their capacity to manage possible risks.

Provide information, programs and policies that promote early recognition and response to employee distress.
As with any problem, the earlier that a problem is identified and acted upon the better the outcome. If an emerging psychological concern such as anxiety or depression is appropriately addressed there is a much greater likelihood that intervention will be effective, workplace morale and functioning will be maintained and disability will be prevented.

Provide managers and supervisors with resources and supports to address workplace mental health issues.
Managers and supervisors play a critical role in determining if employee distress is resolved or gets worse. To do this effectively, managers and supervisors need ongoing support and training and should have access to useful tools and programs to address the mental health of employees. It important to recognize that managers are by no means immune to distress; they also need supports to maintain their own psychological health.

Review current processes, programs and policies with a psychological health lens.
Do selection processes and position descriptions adequately encompass the interpersonal, cognitive and emotional aspects of the job? Do health and safety and/or wellness initiatives provide information, resources and programs to help employees maintain their psychological health? Do benefits and/or EFAP services provide adequate access to mental health interventions that are proven to make a difference?

 

Help employees who are, or may be, dealing with psychological health issues to stay at work. Studies have found that the majority of individuals with a diagnosed, or diagnosable, mental health condition are not off work or on disability but remain in the workplace. Employers that recognize the practical and ethical merits of providing appropriate support for the employee while they address their health issues are more likely to avoid extended absenteeism and disability.

 

Work together to assist with returning employees off work because of a psychological health condition in a timely, safe and appropriate manner.
Regardless of the condition, the longer someone is off work the harder and more difficult it is going to be to successfully return to work. Thus the best form of planning for work return begins at the point where the employee goes off work in the first place. This is most likely to occur when there is honest and respectful but honest communication between the employer, the insurer or disability manager, the union (when appropriate), the employee and their treatment or rehabilitation provider.

Prevent or minimize relapse or recurrence.
Although there are effective treatments for psychological disorders, they may recur. It is therefore important to plan for ‘slips’ in a timely manner so that they are less likely to impair functioning and result in RTD (return to disability). These efforts will only be successful if the working environment is psychologically healthy.

Locally the Queensland Alliance for Mental Health is making workplace mental health the topic of their bi-annual conference. Altering States: Working for Wellbeing will provide a platform for discussion, debate and the sharing of ideas around:

  1. Workplace social inclusion for consumers/people who have experienced mental health issues.
  2. Employers’ role in creating Mentally Healthy Workforces.
  3. Capacity building and workforce skilling in the Community Mental Health sector.

Fortunately this important area of mental health and public policy is gaining status and will hopefully lead to early intervention and reduced prevalence rates.

Kylie Hobbs is Principal Psychologist at ASSIST Psychological & Counselling Services.

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