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March 8, 2017

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Why you should offer mental health support to employees with physical conditions

Christine Husbands, managing director, RedArc Nurses explains how employees who initially may present with physical health conditions nearly always require mental health support as well. 

Employees who initially present with physical health conditions need support for mental health and emotional problems in practically all cases in our nurses’ experience.

We have found that no matter what the individual’s physical health condition, some level of additional mental or emotional problem also needs to be dealt with after the initial diagnosis.

We have supported over 27,000 people through serious illness, disability, trauma and bereavement. Whilst 20% of people present with mental health conditions ranging from stress, depression, anxiety through to bi-polar and schizophrenia, the vast majority of those presenting with physical health conditions such as cancers, heart conditions and musculoskeletal also have underlying or associated mental health and emotional issues.

Depression likely

It is well documented that people with serious physical health conditions are more likely to suffer from depression, not to mention relationship difficulties, loss of confidence and self-esteem.

A report, ‘Twice as Likely: putting long-term conditions and depression on the agenda’*, from a coalition of charities (Arthritis Research UK, British Heart Foundation, Depression Alliance, Diabetes UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society) gives a lot of detail and recommendations.

While feeling physically unwell, it is very normal to feel in a low mood, but serious illness very often puts a huge strain on families and relationships, so it’s no surprise that people who are unwell are often very worried about their family and how they are coping.

It stands to reason that physical health conditions do not arise in a vacuum, people have all the usual issues going on in their lives too.

Therefore a holistic approach, covering not just the physical illness but also the emotional and mental health issues, is vital to ensuring the best recovery possible. Often, just the opportunity to share worries and concerns to someone outside of the family and friends’ network can be invaluable.

Employers should consider entire wellbeing

For employers, it can come as somewhat of a surprise that people also need support for emotional issues. Once the physical issue is being dealt with there can often be a ‘business as usual’ mentality from line managers or HR departments.

However, many employees need support in dealing with related issues such as managing pain, loss of dignity or coming to terms with life-changing health conditions.

Other non-medical issues can become overwhelming during times of ill-health too, such as changes in the workplace, financial pressures, loss of confidence and fatigue.

Employers should be just as mindful of the emotional aspects of ill health as well as the physical aspects. Just because an employee may have physically recovered may not mean there are not long-lasting emotional or mental health aspects.

Any serious illness diagnosis can be life-changing and have a major effect on the self-confidence and self-esteem of people. Returning to work can by physically challenging; employees will naturally tire easily, so a phased return and flexibility can help a lot.

However, alongside this, there are the emotional aspects, after long absence employees often worry about how their colleagues will treat them or whether they will be able to do the job again to the same level. Changes in the workplace can cause an enormous amount of additional stress to employees at this time.

Employer responsiblities and supporting staff

Falling ill with a physical condition can expose a mental fragility in even the seemingly toughest of employees. Having a way to support staff through what can be a difficult journey to full health or in a return to a new norm, is greatly valued and it helps engender an extremely positive sentiment towards the employer as well.

Employers can’t be expected to understand the intricacies of every single illness and the associated mental health issues, but by offering a comprehensive support service they are embracing their duty of care and demonstrating to the individual and the wider staff community that they care about employees and want to go the extra mile for them.

We advise employers to consider the entire wellbeing of the employee and not just to acknowledge their physical symptoms.

Many employees who have access to an independent nurse adviser refer to them as an ‘expert best friend’ reflecting the time they can dedicate to the emotional wellbeing of the employee-patient and the supportive relationship they can build.

Telemedical services

Third-party telemedical advisers are growing in popularity for a number of reasons:

  • Squeezed NHS hospital services and pressure on GPs
  • Ease of access to services using technology and/or telephone
  • More people are surviving serious illnesses but living with multiple health problems
  • Families living further apart and not available to physically support each other
  • Financial pressures and debt worries when ill
  • Pressure at work and fear of failure when suffering an illness or returning to employment

Such services are available through group insurance such as income protection and critical illness as well as employee assistance programs (EAPs) but it’s important that employers check the detail of what is included.

Some services can be a very light touch helpline whereas others can provide long-term support from a dedicated nurse. Continuity of provider is very important, particularly bearing in mind the fragmented nature of health provision in the UK.

Business Case

The business case for holistic long-term support should be clear to employers. An unsupported employee is likely to take longer to recover physically and mentally, and the right support and coping mechanisms can really aid a smooth return to work.

This in turn builds confidence within the individual, enabling them to get back to full capacity sooner and hopefully avoid further absences in the future.

Not only will such services result in reduced absence from the employee directly affected, it will also engender loyalty, improve engagement and staff retention throughout the workforce as such an approach is a clear demonstration of the duty of care from a supportive employer.

Christine Husbands, managing director, RedArc Nurses

Get Your Free Ticket to Jonny Wilkinson's Talk at Safety & Health Expo 2019

Arguably one of the best-known rugby players in the world, Jonny Wilkinson CBE famously kicked the drop goal that won England the 2003 World Cup with just seconds left in the final. Much of Jonny’s success on the field, however, took its psychological toll. Jonny has dealt with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. In his honest, unguarded speech, entitled ‘Success on the field and mental health: a personal account of understanding what matters’, Jonny will recount how his focus and dedication to the sport he loves meant overlooking important parts of his life.

Hear Jonny Wilkinson at Safety & Health Expo | ExCeL London | Thursday 20 June | 11:30 - 12:30 

Jonny Wilkinson

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It is well documented that certain types of injuries can lead to on going depression for works – especially rehabilitating injuries like back problems. This is often why insurance companies will ask about back problems even for life insurance applications.