Unspoken Problem

The great, albeit acid tongued Dorothy Parker was a fantastically gifted writer, but a troubled person. She was married three times, drank heavily and survived three suicide attempts. One of her most famous poems is Résumé, a typically tart summary of the difficulties of committing suicide.

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live

I thought about the awfulness of wanting to self-harm or to die by one’s own hand when I heard yesterday’s news about the rising numbers of people deliberately poisoning themselves.

The Newsbeat article was about poisoning from the point of view of self-harming rather than suicide. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists self-poisoning is the most common type of hospital treated self-harm. In the last decade this number has risen by around 50%. NHS figures suggest that there were over 114,000 cases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2011.

Depression, anxiety and emotional problems are becoming more common and inevitably they have an impact on the workplace. The Employment Equality Act 2010 encompass mental illness in all its forms. Anxiety, stress and depression may be sufficient to qualify a person as disabled and therefore covered by the Act as long as there is a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day duties. Staff with mental health conditions (whether diagnosed or not) are very likely to be covered by the Act. If an employee is considered to be disabled, the employer has a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of that employee.

Mental health problems are a major cause of under-performing at work and employee absence but recent research indicates that many managers have poor awareness of mental health problems and little understanding of the link between work design, stress and mental illness. The Department of Health has found that stress is a major problem in the workplace and current practice of tackling it is that most staff are being advised to take “a couple of days off”.

A CIPD study which fund that stress is now the major cause of long-term absence in manual and non-manual workers, highlighted the impact on business of poor mental health in employees.

  • 37% of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues.
  • 57% find it harder to juggle multiple tasks.
  • 80% find it difficult to concentrate.
  • 62% take longer to do tasks.
  • 50% are potentially less patient with customers/clients.

Health and safety legislation places a duty on employers to ensure (as far as is reasonably possible) to provide a safe place of work both from a physical and mental point of view for employees. This includes undertaking risk assessments and managing activities to reduce the incidence of stress at work.

Managers can help employees by looking out for unusual behaviour. For example, if someone is unusually bad tempered or emotional this could indicate there are problems. Gently express your concern for the employee’s well-being, explore if possible and see what you can do to help. Take whatever practical steps you can take to help with coping strategies and ensure you make reasonable adjustments where appropriate.

It may also be helpful to promote awareness of mental health issues and create a culture where employees feel they can talk to you about mental health issues. You can raise awareness and promote well-being programmes in a variety of ways.

  • Hold health fairs or workshops on health topics.
  • Enter external workplace health competitions as a way of demonstrating to employees that the organisation is engaged in the issues.
  • Build material on well-being activities into staff training and induction sessions, and into line manager briefings.
  • Use internal communication media to sustain the health message.

Whether the problem relates to home or work life, where it comes into the workplace you must address it appropriately and in doing so you can make a positive difference to the employee’s situation.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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