Can we confront mental illness with silence?

blackboard shhh Dr Karen McDonnell, CFIOSH, CBiol MIBiol, MIPD, AIEMA looks at how mental illness in the workplace can affect everyday working and what employers can do to ensure enough support and help is offered.

Irrespective of which particular piece of statistical evidence you consider the challenges of mental illness within the working population in Britain are immense. The World Health Organisation estimates that by the year 2020 mental illness will be the second leading cause of death and disability across the globe, and with an estimated 20% of the world’s children and adolescents experiencing mental disorders or problems this issue can no longer remain silent in our workplaces.

Cicero recognised that ‘In a disordered mind, as in a disordered body, soundness of health is impossible’, many of us will know this from our own experience. We also know that ‘good work is generally good for an individual’s health and wellbeing’

However the growing momentum around individual and organisational resilience is challenging; the word ‘resilience’ is defined in a number of different ways. From a mechanical perspective; the energy per unit volume absorbed by a material when it is subjected to strain; the value of this at the elastic limit, the power of resuming an original shape or position after compression or bending .

The image of an individual being literally stretched to their limit as a consequence of mental illness is a powerful one which could start from something as basic as being under pressure from work, which can lead to workplace stress. As practitioners we have to recognise what interventions need to be put in place to assist those suffering from mental ill-health, whilst recognising that it may be impossible to untangle the work from home issues.

A recent survey by People Management magazine identified phased returns to work as the most ‘popular’ intervention closely followed by reduced work-load/work assessments. This clearly identifies the role of the health and safety team once the illness has manifested itself, however we need to develop ourselves to recognise the causal factors and modify conditions to prevent the condition developing in the first place.

We need to treat the whole employee working closely, if not already, with our HR colleagues to develop solutions which meet the needs of individuals. This is definitely a case where one size does not fit all.

Further reading

Under pressure at work? How to manage work place stress

HATE Health and safety? It could be down to stress…

12 facts every director knows to have a happy workforce

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