Sheila O’Neill: Mental health support is good for business

Dr Sheila O’Neill

Dr Sheila O’Neill, a GP and clinical director of Glasgow Medical Rooms, discusses how employers can help address mental health issues in the workplace.

On Saturday we marked World Mental Health Day, an annual event designated by the World Health Organisation. At a time when social distancing is having a significant impact on people’s lives, tackling the challenges around the rising levels of anxiety and depression is one for all employers to embrace.

Along with the devastating affect mental health issues can have upon individual’s lives, it also brings a significant impact on the global economy which loses an estimated $1 trillion per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety, according to WHO.

According to the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH), mental health problems cost an estimated £10.7 billion each year in Scotland taking account of social and care costs, economic outputs and human costs.

A more recent study released last month by the University of Nottingham and King’s College London showed a substantial increase in mental health-related issues in the UK since lockdown began, especially amongst women and young people. The study found that 64% of participants reported symptoms of depression while 57% reported symptoms of anxiety.

Despite some of the current and anticipated economic challenges, most businesses and organisation have a vested interest in keeping their employees at work. With further social distancing measures coming into effect across Scotland, employers have a crucial role to play in supporting colleagues with mental health issues due to growing concerns about their job or from the ongoing isolation that some are experiencing. Support could come from a range of sources, from the business owner in a small company to the head of HR in a larger organisation. Alternatively, it could come through an empathetic colleague with strong people skills who’s happy to take on this responsibility.

Providing this support begins with awareness. As it’s less likely a colleague will come forward and declare they are struggling with mental health issues, employers will need to give greater consideration to key risk factors. These include previous mental health issues, current level of workload (which may have increased during the pandemic and could include additional duties they’ve been given due to reorganisation), and concerns over redundancy.

There are also be behavioural clues for employers to look out for. These may not always be as evident as tears or open expressions of stress, depression or anxiety but could be more subtle indications such as signs of withdrawal, a noted lack of concentration, increased aggression or out of the ordinary intolerant behaviour.

Getting to the heart of these issues usually requires time, a quiet and private setting, and open-ended questions that allow a conversation, rather than an interview, to occur. An employer’s key aim is to provide a kind ear to a colleague who is experiencing mental health strain. While they may be unable to provide reassurance about an individual’s future role, talking through issues of concern can go a long way in making them feel valued and connected.

There is a wide range of support available for people with mental health issues in Scotland and they should be positively encouraged to seek this expert help. The best advice is to suggest a colleague makes an initial visit to a GP for an objective assessment. Showing understanding and allowing additional flexibility to attend appointments is also important.

Of course, this advice applies equally to the employers themselves – whether it’s a founder of an SME, an HR Director in a large organisation or the CEO of a multinational company - who can feel alone on the front line in a time of crisis.

At all levels within the workplace it’s important that we support each other. This includes reaching out to colleagues simply to say hello and have an informal chat, especially at a time when many are homeworking and not in regular contact. Getting some respite from work to take regular exercise, as numerous studies have shown, is also essential to our entire well-being and must therefore be a priority for everyone.

An important aspect of addressing the challenges around mental health is for employers to look out for the signs of anxiety and depression within their workforce. There is a wide offering of support and evidenced-based treatment available which can really help those colleagues who may need it. This is not only a caring approach but it is also one that will ultimately benefit your business.

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