Page last updated at 08:41 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Firms 'must tackle mental health'

stressed employee
Workers need support if they are to be productive, the charity says

Employers must do more to support the mental wellbeing of their staff after they return to work after sick leave, a leading mental health charity warns.

A new report finds many people suffer depression on returning to work after a period of prolonged absence for both physical and mental illnesses.

It calls for managers to produce better "return to work" schemes for the sick.

Firms should not allow this to be sidelined as a result of the recession, the Mental Health Foundation adds.

If anything, employers should ensure valuable staff are able to be as productive as possible as hard times hit, the charity said.

The research, carried out at Loughborough University, found nearly half of those who returned to work after a physical illness such as chronic back pain, cancer or heart disease, reported mild to moderate symptoms of depressions.

It's understandable that people still feel more comfortable talking to an employee about cancer than they do about mental health - the stigma has yet to be properly addressed
Rowan Myron
Mental Health Foundation

In-depth interviews with 30 of the 264 employees studied suggested they found it harder to tell their managers about their depression than their original illness.

Some three quarters of people who had been on leave with a mental health condition reported symptoms of continuing depression.

The research indicated that they were less likely to see well constructed return to work schemes than their physically ill counterparts.

This was despite the fact that their illness was much more likely to have been work related in the first place.

Cutting down

Researchers said they did find evidence of good practice, in particular where "case conferences" were held to discuss the return to work with employee, manager and an occupational health specialist.

Many people want to support their staff with mental health problems, but are not sure how best to.
Susan Scott-Parker
Employers' Forum on Disability

Shorter working hours and fewer tasks were among the key working aspects reported to be beneficial to the employee's mental health.

Support from colleagues was also found to be instrumental, and the report recommends employers provide mental health training to staff to help improve understanding of the issues.

"It's understandable that people still feel more comfortable talking to an employee about cancer than they do about mental health - the stigma has yet to be properly addressed," says Rowan Myron, Associate Head of Research at the Mental Health Foundation.

"But employers really do need to take this on board. The recession means more than ever, companies need to make sure they are getting the best out of their staff - so now is really not the time to sideline these efforts."

Susan Scott-Parker, the head of the Employers’ Forum on Disability agreed that the research made "good business sense for employers to get it right when staff return to work after a period of ill health and experience mental distress.

"Our own research into the experiences of line managers found that many people want to support their staff with mental health problems, but are not sure how best to.

"Best practice on mental health at work is often about common sense principles like giving managers mental health awareness training and using cost-free, good management techniques.

"Above all, adjustments need to have the support of both employees and employers to be a success."

Marjorie Wallace of the mental health charity Sane said: "There is often a conspiracy of silence surrounding mental illness in the workplace – to the detriment of both employees and employers.

"What we need is for everyone to combine forces to make returning to work easier, rather than risk frightening people who make this transition following a physical or mental illness.

"To do this, we should listen to employees and employers to find out their views and what support they will need."

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