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Our approach to mental health needs to change

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As the health of the workforce continues to deteriorate, the focus must shift from disconnected tactical solutions to joined-up strategic solutions, says Dr Wolfgang Seidl.

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The health of the workforce is continuing to deteriorate. Presenteeism, when people come to work but are too sick to perform well, has hit a record-high due in no small part to increases in common mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, last year’s Mental Health at Work report showed that 3 out of every 5 employees have experienced a mental health issue in the last year due to work, or where work was a related factor, and 31% have been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue.

Despite this, just one in ten employees (11 per cent) felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their manager, with mental health remaining one of the most difficult topics to talk about at work. Those surveyed said they felt more comfortable talking about seven other equality and social issues, including race, age, physical health and religious belief.

Most worrying of all, 15% of respondents said that after they had disclosed a mental health issue, they were subjected to disciplinary procedures, demotion or dismissal.

A disjointed approach isn’t working

A major issue is that few managers know what to say or do with someone who discloses a mental health issue. If you have a back problem, the chances are your manager would follow a clearly defined care pathway, featuring a physical assessment, recommended adjustments and support to put these into practice while you recovered.

But if you admitted to struggling with extreme anxiety or feelings of low self-worth, your manager most likely won’t have a clue what to do with you. They might attempt to tell you to pull yourself together or think they should be able to tell you about what they did the time they felt like you. But what if they’d never felt like that? What use is a stand-alone mindfulness seminar or one-off mental health day to someone who can’t come into work because they’ve developed a stifling anxiety disorder?

The fact is disjointed tactical solutions aren’t working and most organisations lack the clear mental health pathways managers need to direct people towards appropriate support. Such mental pathways would normalise people’s experience of recovering from and managing mental health issues, in much the same way that physical assessments and workplace adjustments have normalised people’s experience of, and willingness to seek help with, musculoskeletal issues.

To be effective, these pathways should include proactive elements, such as training managers to spot the early warning signs of stressed employees, and reactive elements for ensuring employees in need of further support are given clinically appropriate referrals into relevant treatment options.

We can’t treat mental health in isolation

At the same time, we need to stop treating physical and mental health in isolation and start viewing people as ‘joined-up’ human beings, so that we can start creating policies that address wellbeing as a whole. This is important because if someone is struggling to manage their income, they will likely not only experience stress and anxiety but also sleep loss, causing them to want to eat unhealthily because they feel tired, which can also lead to weight gain and diabetes type 2.

They might not yet have any physical or mental health issues, and may even consider themselves to be healthy. But by encouraging them to look at their financial health, you can help them to prevent physical and mental health issues developing further down the line.

Although it was hoped that an explicit focus on mental health would help more employees to get help sooner, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, only by treating mental health as an aspect of health like any other and creating strategic joined-up solutions that look at the wellbeing of people in their entirety will we be able to start boosting the health of the workforce once more.

Critical to this is taking a step back from putting such an explicit focus on mental health, and looking at things like the following 8 Dimensions of Wellbeing. This not only provides employers with an opportunity to have much more positive discussions about health and wellbeing, but also the opportunity to create people-shaped policies that prevent problems from arising in the first place.

Dr Wolfgang Seidl

Dr Wolfgang Seidl is a Partner at Mercer and leads Workplace Health Consulting in the UK and Europe, advising organisations on health and wellbeing strategy, integrated models of healthcare, data analytics, and proactive interventions, such as resilience programs. He is a member of the Global Health Management leadership team, founded the European Health & Wellbeing Network and currently advises a number of blue-chip companies on strategy and implementation.

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