Mental health issues and going back to work

By Angelina Chiu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

Scenario One: Bob returns to work after a lengthy absence because of a heart attack. His co-workers were solicitous — offering their help. They asked Bob about the old ticker. His boss told him to take things easy. Bob felt good about the warm welcome he received. The company also implemented a program promoting Heart Health.

Scenario Two: Willie returns to work after an episode of severe depression. Nothing was said about his absence. His co-workers seemed to tip toe around him and because of this Willie felt isolated.

“Mental, neurological and behavioural disorders will, according to projections, outrank road traffic accidents, AIDS and violence by 2020 as a primary cause of work years lost due to disability and early death,” states Unheralded Global Business Crisis: Worldwide Mental Health Problems Burning Wildfire in Global Economy, a recent report from the Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health. The stigma attached to mental illness is one of the biggest barriers in addressing mental health problems in the workplace. Lack of education and awareness among employers perpetuate the stigma.

The two scenarios above are common experiences that occur time and again in today’s workplaces. People are comfortable talking about physical illness but don’t want to talk about depression and other mental illnesses. Yet both are equally incapacitating. Most of us don’t know what to say to somebody who has had a nervous breakdown. Companies have programs that facilitate the re-entry of employees who have been away from work for a lengthy period of time but these programs are mostly geared towards employees with physical illness.

The report also states that business leaders, “need to devise strategies within their companies to set out clearly how employees who are on short- or long-term disability — and suffering mental disorders — will receive appropriate rehabilitation, recovery and return- to-work support.

“The current generation of corporate disability management plans, by and large, neglects this issue or at least tends to it ineffectively.”

However, there are organizations bringing these issues to the forefront. The National Institute for Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR) held its second annual symposium last year, giving employers a chance to learn about stress and depression — the two major factors effecting workplace productivity today. NIDMAR initiated this project in order for employers to learn about how to encourage and promote an inclusive environment for return-to-work employees suffering from mental health problems.

Employers must keep these points in mind:

•Work must be seen as part of the recovery process in depression cases.

•Most of those returning from depression-induced disability must re-enter the workplace on a gradual basis.

•More aggressive return-to-work strategies employed in recovery from soft tissue injury, for example, are not necessarily replicable for mental health concerns. The reason is this: studies show that a person recovering from depression may exhibit a willingness and ability to return to work before the depression itself is wrestled to the ground. Returning to work too soon, therefore, can hasten a relapse.

•On the other hand, productive activity is important to the recovery process. Disability management programs must be equipped — through the knowledge and experience of the people running them — to recognize and sustain this delicate balance. Business leaders will serve their companies well to ensure this capability is in place.

Organizations should also examine their workplace culture. Programs, awareness seminars and policies will not be effective if the culture is conducive to stress.

Angelina Chiu is the president of ACCION Consulting which assists companies in resolving workplace health issues and provides training programs for management and labour. For more information call (416) 255-4930.

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