How to manage severe mental health problems
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind, discusses how severe mental health problems can act as a barrier for people getting into and staying in work, and explains how as an employer you can create a mentally healthy workplace.
Conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are relatively rare, each affecting an estimated 1-3% of the population. We often refer to these conditions as ‘severe’ because if they’re not well managed, they can severely impact on someone’s day to day life, including work.
However, it’s worth remembering that people with mental health problems – including severe mental health problems – can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, with the right support.
Unfortunately, people with mental health problems typically face lots of barriers in getting into, and staying in, work. A 2013 report by the charity Sane stated that just 8% of people with schizophrenia are in employment, against a national employment rate of 71%. But many people with schizophrenia who aren’t currently in work, want to work.
When people are supported to overcome the barriers they face in getting into employment, it’s important they are well supported to stay in work. Implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives help minimise the risk of sickness absence and falling out of work altogether for all employees, whether they have a mental health problem or not.
Mind recommends employers create mentally healthy workplaces by tackling the work-related causes of stress and poor mental health at work, promoting wellbeing for all staff and supporting members of staff experiencing a mental health problem.
Unfortunately there is still a stigma around mental health at work. A Mind-commissioned YouGov poll found that, of the respondents who said they had a diagnosed mental health problem, fewer than half had told their current employer.
Every employer should create a working environment where people can open up about their mental health, and know that if they do, they’ll be met with support and understanding.
Time to Change, the anti-stigma movement led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has reported a 6% improvement in public attitudes towards people with mental health problems since 2011. But we’ve got a way to go, particularly when it comes to lesser-known and lesser-understood conditions, such as schizophrenia.
A 2015 report by the Work Foundation found that many health professionals believed people with schizophrenia would be better suited to low-skilled, low-responsibility work, regardless of their individual skills and ambitions.
These attitudes have meant that work, and its role in a person’s recovery, is not given priority, and may not even be considered by some health-care teams. Yet we know that many people with schizophrenia are very motivated to work and feel having a job is important in terms of managing their condition and leading fulfilling lives. But too often, they’re not given the chance.
Schizophrenia is at the severe end of the spectrum, but we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and our mental health can vary a lot. Common workplace pressures – such as excessive workload and long hours can both cause and worsen mental health problems.
Employers should aim to tackle such causes of poor mental health at work. Regardless of your role or seniority, we’d urge all employees to look out for each other’s mental health. Identifying someone struggling with their mental health early on can help prevent things from getting worse.
Even if you’re not sure, talk to the colleague you’re worried about, as staying silent is one of the worst things you can do. Try to adopt a sensitive, common-sense approach. The rules of thumb are:
- Encourage people to talk – start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know that they can talk to you if they need to. Remember everyone’s experience of mental health problems is different, so focus on the person, not the problem.
- Avoid making assumptions – don’t try to guess what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job – many people are able to manage their condition and perform their role to a high standard.
- Respect confidentiality – remember mental health information is confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily – not least because this breach of trust could negatively impact someone’s mental health.
- Even if they don’t want to speak about it at that time, you’ve still let them know you care and you’re there for them when the time is right. In addition, small gestures like thanking people for their work, making tea or coffee and asking about their plans outside work – can make a huge difference.
The legal responsibilities
An employer has a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for an employee with a disability, including a mental health problem if it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on your normal day-to-day activities.
But too often this doesn’t happen. We recently heard from someone with bipolar disorder whose would-be employer withdrew their offer of employment on receiving her occupational health report.
Despite her clear passion and qualifications, they retracted their offer based on stigmatising and inaccurate assumptions about how her mental and physical health would impact on her ability to carry out her role. She is now seeking legal advice.
We also hear from people pushed out of their jobs after telling their employer about their mental health problem, which is hugely disappointing.
It’s not just about legal duties, supporting the emotional wellbeing of staff should be seen by employers as part of being a responsible employer who values and appreciates their employees. Employers who take mental health at work seriously report employees who are more engaged, productive and loyal; and less likely to need time off sick – so there’s a business case too.
In recognition of trailblazing organisations at the forefront of promoting staff wellbeing, we’ve just launched a Workplace Wellbeing Index – a benchmark of best policy and practice. The Index ranks employers on how effectively they are addressing staff mental wellbeing and provides employers with the support they need to do this even better.
It’s our way of acknowledging employers who recognise the benefits of recruiting and retaining a talented and diverse workforce, including people who might be experiencing a mild, moderate or severe mental health problem.
Emma Mamo is head of workplace wellbeing at Mind