Mental health in the workplace: Issues for employers

Unlike a few years ago, mental health is now a topic of discussion in many workplaces, which is a welcomed development. Talking is only the start of the journey in the removal of stigma around mental ill health in society at large. The sad fact of the matter is that the stigma remains and it is a real barrier for people with mental ill health to enter the workforce. It's all very well trying to encourage employees to be open about their mental ill health at work, and encourage employers to create an open culture where mental ill health is not the kiss of death to career prospects, but many employers still make assumptions about employees with mental ill health. Prejudice still abounds.

So what's the solution? Being open is good (but it is not always easy to encourage staff to be so). Talking is good. Changing the culture is good, but how do we iron out the prejudices and assumptions? Education is the key. Many people I talk to, and even employee clients I act for, openly admit that they had no idea what common depressive disorder was like until they/a partner/friend/child had it. This evidences a lack of understanding about what depressive illness is. How is this possible in the twenty-first century? Have we not really moved on since the Victorian times, when people with depression were branded as "mad" and locked away? The difference of availability to simple and effective treatments on the NHS highlights the lack of parity in treatment between physical and mental ill health, which is a worrying issue. The mental/physical distinction is in itself unhelpful. Mental ill health is every bit as important as physical back pain or cancer.

In the work context, we can help employers to understand mental illness, long-term mental health conditions and possible impacts on work. The psychiatric community has a role to play, along with employment specialists that have experience of managing mental ill health. Understanding is the cornerstone of progress for employers to understand how to sensitively manage mental ill health, which requires a different approach to other forms of illness. All too often, employers use a standard sickness management procedure without flexing for the particular circumstances of mental ill health.  Employers are quite happy to send a 'Get Well' card and flowers to an employee with cancer, but fail to do the same for mental ill health because they are treated as a second-class citizen. Most of the cases that land on my desk arise from a lack of empathy and heavy-handed treatment. Managers and HR don't understand how to manage mental ill health and mental health conditions. The solutions are not rocket science but they do require a change of attitude.

Going back to where I started, employers must learn how to manage mental ill health and mental health conditions. A new mental health-specific approach is called for. There's plenty of evidence to show that employees with common mental health problems take virtually no more time off than staff without a health condition at all (5.6 days vs 4.8 per annum, OECD). Let's work together to shake off the prejudiced assumptions and get Great Britain back to work. After all, when it comes to disability, the Equality Act is all about helping people with long-term conditions obtain, retain work and keeping them healthy. There is much to be done but all eminently possible and at low cost.

Didlaw Education's conference, Mental health disabilities and Stress at Work 2015 addresses all these issues and will give employers and managers the tools to make headway in this area. With a panoply of experts showcasing best practice from the psychiatric and legal communities, from employers who are ahead of the curve, it's all up for grabs. Can you really afford to miss it? Kick start your initiative and make your workplace mentally healthy.