There’s a big difference in how mental and physical health is treated in the workplace. Here’s how to make sure it doesn’t happen in your office.
Meet Amira. After an unfortunate incident involving too many stairs, she’s broken her leg. Fortunately, Amira’s workplace have been supportive: installing ramps; adjusting her desk; allowing her to work flexibly in order to avoid congested commutes. An announcement was made when she had her accident, and Amira came back to work to flowers, cards and sympathetic people asking how she was.
Now meet Laurence. He’s one of Amira’s colleagues and is suffering with depression. He called in sick a couple of times, feigning a stomach bug, but eventually was forced to tell the truth when his depression became so bad he couldn’t face getting out of bed. He came back to work to awkward glances, hushed conversations and zero adjustments.
Too often, this is the reality of how physical versus mental illnesses are treated in the workplace.
It’s time for things to change, and not just to help those suffering. Mental ill health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK, estimated to cost the economy approximately £105.2 billion every year.
Here are 7 ways you can support invisible illness in the workplace.
1. Have a mental health first-aider. By law, employers are required to provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure employees receive immediate attention if they’re injured or taken ill at work. But this rarely extends to mental health. Organisations like Mental Health First Aid England provide training on how to spot the signs of mental health issues, offer initial help and guide a person towards support
2. Encourage a healthy work/life balance. In a survey run by mental health organisation Sanctus, 92% of people reported that work had impacted their or their colleagues’ mental health. Make sure workloads are manageable and create a culture where people aren’t assessed by the hours spent at their desks (an inaccurate measure of productivity, anyway)
3. Implement clear policies. Every workplace has a sickness policy, but does this apply to mental illness? And, if so, do employees know that? Intervening early and in the right way is pivotal to how well someone suffering from mental illness will recover – and how much time they’ll need off work over the long-term. Make it clear that sickness policies apply to mental illness as well as physical, and keep in touch with any employees taking time off so they feel supported and not ostracised from their workplace
4. Open up communication. Most people are nervous about discussing mental health for fear of saying the wrong thing. And while it’s good to be sensitive, it’s counter-productive to say nothing and leave people suffering in silence. There are no magic words for discussing mental health; you simply need patience, empathy and a desire to help. Stay positive – rather, for example, than focussing on an employees’ time off work, focus on how you can help prevent it going forward – and remind individuals that you’re there for them
5. Create an action plan. Talking is an important step, but it’s action that creates real change. Discuss steps you can both take to improve things – be that flexible working, a lighter workload or reduced hours – and put additional catch ups in the diary so you can keep tabs on how things are progressing. Something as simple as avoiding the rush hour commute could make a notable difference – research shows commutes longer than one hour increase the risk of depression, obesity and reduce employees’ productivity
6. Seek support. You don’t need to shoulder the responsibility of supporting invisible illness in the workplace alone. Charities like Mind, Sanctus and Mental Health UK offer brilliant resources and guidance on how to deal with those suffering with mental health problems.
7. Create a supportive culture. The way we talk about and address mental health still has a long way to go. Help push this change by educating your employees on mental health and help break down the taboo surrounding being honest about how we’re feeling.