55% of people who suffer work related stress take 5 or more sick days in a row.*

New research that will be published later this year took 3,000 workers and explored their mental health issues. They found that about 20% of the working population experience mild depression. These workers took twice as many sick days as their colleagues who did not suffer from depression.

Mental health problems in the workplace can be very disruptive – both for individuals and businesses. As well as affecting people’s personal lives, wellbeing and morale, it also impacts their performance at work and is a costly burden for businesses.

The increase in mental health issues at work arises out of workplace bullying, harassment and heavy workloads. The average worker who suffers from mental disorders takes nearly 11 weeks a year off.

How to spot mental health problems among workers:

Keep your eyes open…The first sign that someone may have depression or a problem with their mental health is often in changes in their day-to-day behaviour. This could be uncharacteristic behaviour such as not being able to cope with their work, seeming distracted, and a sudden loss in motivation or absenteeism.

Don’t make assumptions: Everyone has their ups and downs, so a change in behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a problem. If, you do notice inconsistent behaviour, then try to establish the nature of the problem.

Get to the root of the problem: It’s rare for someone to want to talk about a mental health problem. Approaching a colleague who you feel may be suffering from a mental health issue is not easy. Try and arrange a moment to catch someone privately, and informally ask if they are feeling ok.

How can you help? Depression can sometimes be caused because of a work issue or a personal one. Act accordingly when you establish what the cause of the problem is. If it’s work related then you have the responsibility and control to help remedy it. If it’s a domestic issue, then talk to the individual about the changes you can implement to make things easier, such as flexible working.

Create a culture: Your long-term aim should be to create a working environment which eradicates the stigma mental health can carry. Introducing policies will help doing this, so staff know and feel comfortable in feeling able to talk about the topic. You can also make support options available, like employment assistance programmes or access to occupational health.
Walk the talk: A policy will only work if lived out in practice. Work with your HR manager and team to ask them to train management and staff, and teach them to handle things sensitively. Evidence also suggests that exercise, a balanced diet and a healthy work pattern can help treat mild depression, so ask the company to provide advice and encouragement in these areas for the entire workforce.

Comcare, the federal work health and safety regulator, said that while injury compensation claims were falling, claims for work place stress were increasing.

The facts and figures:

  • 5.3% of workers suffer a work-related injury or illness – about 640,000 workers a year.
  • Work-related injuries and illnesses cost about $60 billion a year.
  • About 4.8% of compensation claims compiled by Safe Work Australia – about 61,600 workers – were for mental disorders. The median payout for psychological injury was $16,300.
  • 22% of all serious mental stress claims involved taking more than a week off work.

Maureen Dollard, an expert in work stress and director of the Centre for Applied Psychological Research at the University of South Australia, said the main factors leading to stress are work pressure and bullying.

Employees are pressured by the ”relentless drive” towards productivity increases, Professor Dollard said. ”It’s all about the quantity of work, rather than the quality of it.

“It’s taking its toll. It’s dehumanising. Managers are after short-term productivity gains and don’t really value the worker any more. Unless people start to pull back and think more about the welfare of the workers, it will become a serious public health issue,” She said.

* Bureau of Statistics publication, Australian Social Trends, June 2011

Writer Helen Splarn. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.
Source: Sydney Morning Herald