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February 12, 2009

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Mandatory measures needed to reduce depression, warns charity

Employers should be required by law to provide designed return-to-work

rehabilitation programmes, according to a mental-health charity, which

also wants risk assessment of depression and introduction of stress

management to be mandatory.

The Mental Health Foundation’s demands follow a major study into the role of depression in returning to work after a period of sickness absence. Carried out by researchers at Loughborough University, the year-long study comprised questionnaires sent to employees of four companies, followed by in-depth interviews with 30 employees with symptoms of depression.

The results of the questionnaire revealed that almost half of those who had returned to work after a physical illness, and three-quarters who had been off sick with depression, reported mild to moderate symptoms of depression following their return. In addition, more than 60 per cent of participants with a physical illness had not received a diagnosis of depression despite reporting symptoms, and fewer than a quarter of individuals who returned to work with depression and anxiety were offered stress management.

Significantly, the analysis suggested there was a preference for implementing return-to-work processes and work adjustments for those with cancer and heart disease over those with depression — despite the latter group reporting high job strain.

From the interviews, the researchers found that both line managers and colleagues had little understanding about depression. Line managers with little medical and legal knowledge were unsure of how to provide support for employees on sick leave, owing to concerns about harassment and litigation. Consequently, employees felt unsupported and undervalued by their organisation.

Chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, Andrew McCulloch, said: “It is sad that many employers can deal better with life-threatening and frightening illnesses like cancer than mild to moderate depression, because of stigma and lack of information. This research shows that managers are willing to help but they often lack the knowledge or skills required.”

The study’s findings have spurred the Foundation to issue a series of recommendations. Key demands centre on introducing legislation forcing employers to provide return-to-work rehabilitation programmes. The charity wants risk assessment of depression and the HSE Management Standards for work-related stress to be made part of the existing health and safety risk-assessment framework. To complement this, employers should provide employees returning to work following depression with stress-management training.

Employers are also urged to train mental-health first-aiders, who could act as ‘buddies’ to provide employees with support, and identify any decline in recovery following their return to work.

At a national level, the charity suggests that occupational health (OH) professionals and GPs need to work more closely together. It also says OH services need to be underpinned with an evidence-based academic foundation to raise their profile.

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