Absence: Out of the shadows

For most Britons, the word Australia conjures up images of ‘barbies’, Neighbours and bronzed surf dudes hanging out on their boards waiting to catch the next wave. However, the true picture is nowhere near as relaxed. Australian businesses have their fair share of stress and mental health (as well as physical health) issues to contend with.

A joint study in August by the British Chartered Management Institute and the Australian Institute of Management concluded that UK managers, surprisingly, generally had a better work-life balance, worked fewer hours, had access to more benefits, and generally suffered fewer health problems than their Australian counterparts.

Missed days

The same month, a study in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun calculated that the average employee there missed more than three days’ work a year because of stress. Workplace stress and mental health issues cost the economy AUS$14.8bn annually.

So it is perhaps unsurprising to find UK businesses embracing a successful Australian programme designed to train line managers to support staff with depression. The Beyondblue programme was launched in 2000, initially as a five-year project, to help managers identify and manage depression and anxiety better in the workplace. Now permanent, it runs programmes for GPs, employers, individuals and communities on prevention and early intervention.

Helen Lockett, research and development manager at the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, which brought the programme to the UK, says it was a response to the sheer numbers of UK staff – particularly in these worrying economic times – who are experiencing depression or anxiety problems at work.

At any time, one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress, she says. This costs employers nearly £26bn a year – the equivalent of £1,035 for every UK employee.

“We also know that employers do not often realise [the problem] is as prevalent as it is. It is different from a physical health problem, and managers often back off when they are faced with a mental health issue,” Lockett says.

According to the centre’s own research, effective programmes to manage mental health at work can save about 30% of these costs – at least they could, if managers had access to effective support and training.

The Employers’ Forum on Disability conducted an online survey of nearly 500 managers in October. It found that, while three-quarters said they had managed at least one person who they knew had mental ill health, just 13% had been given training on mental health awareness, against a third who had received training on disability discrimination law. Fewer than one in 10 had ever authorised spending for an external assessment.

Training pilots

Following an independent analysis of the programme by the University of Nottingham, the Sainsbury Centre is now piloting its workplace training to find out how – or, indeed, whether – it might be useful here. Pilot employers include the Department of Health, Kent County Council, Royal Mail, the submarines business of Rolls-Royce and the foods company Tate & Lyle.

Anxiety and depression may manifest itself in quite a subtle way, perhaps in someone’s productivity or how they relate to colleagues or team members, and it is this that can make it hard to identify and respond to, says Lockett.

“It’s the people who that person is working with, and their managers, who will be exposed to it. It is not just about people taking time off work but about people not reaching their potential while at work,” she adds.

The challenge, therefore, is to make available to managers evidence-based training that would be quick to access, understandable and, crucially, make a difference.

“A lot of mental health awareness training does not necessarily give people the practical skills they need to manage staff – things such as picking up signs and symptoms,” Lockett says.

The centre hopes the programme will replicate here the success it had in Australia. Jeff Kennett, Beyondblue chairman and former premier of the state of Victoria, says its main achievements have been to increase knowledge about depression and related disorders, reduce stigma and improve attitudes towards people with such disorders. “Most importantly, it gives people the confidence to assist and appropriately manage employees who may have depression,” he adds.

But Lockett stresses the training is not about expecting managers to make diagnoses. It is simply to enable them to recognise when they need to act or call in expert assistance. “It focuses on the fact that mental health at work is everyone’s business, not just something for HR or OH to deal with. So it is about helping managers to be aware of the internal and external resources at their disposal and get them to realise why it is important for them to act,” she says.

Increasing confidence

“It is about getting managers to identify the different ways someone might behave and then thinking ‘what is going to be my role’, what is going to be helpful and, just as importantly, what is not going to be helpful,” she adds. “It is about increasing knowledge but also simply about increasing confidence and competence.”

The three-hour programme is split into hourly bursts over three days, so it is more likely to be something that busy managers can spare the time to attend. Sessions generally take up to 25 managers at a time.

The pilots have been run through October and November, after which their impact will be evaluated through in-depth interviews with their participants.

If deemed successful, the programme could then be promoted more widely to companies here. “The intention is to make it available across the country, so we want to explore ways that we might be able to do that,” says Lockett.

At this early stage, OH’s role is more as an observer than to take an active part. But, in time – certainly if Beyondblue becomes a national programme – OH is likely to have a key role alongside HR in arguing the case for investment in such training and why it is important.

“In many of the organisations that have been piloting this, we have been working closely with the occupational health departments, which have taken a real interest in it and who have taken a lead on it,” says Lockett.

“I see this, over time, as being something that is a partnership between managers, OH and HR rather than just something that goes on within HR.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Royal Mail Group, as something of a pioneer in workplace and occupational health for a number of years, is one of the companies piloting the Beyondblue scheme.


What this entails for the organisation, which employs 180,000 workers, is 50 to 60 front line managers from the Royal Mail letters and post office divisions attending three training workshops around the country, explains Dr Su Wang, group head of health. Around 20 will attend each session.

“Beyondblue is a well-validated training scheme in Australia so, while we do not know yet how well it will do in the UK, we think it will transfer well,” she says.

“The course is led by Beyondblue trainers and is totally their product. The key is to help managers become aware of when staff are showing early signs of distress and give them the confidence to assist and manage people with depression, to simply ensure they know more what to do.

“Managers are often afraid of speaking to people because they fear they will just make it worse. Tears often frighten managers – especially male managers, of which we have a lot. Even just recognising that someone maybe suffering from depression is not easy,” says Wang.

With comprehensive OH and counselling services already in place, a major part of the programme is to remind managers what expert support and assistance is available to them, and how they can access it.

“It is about making them more confident so that if someone is in distress, not only can they spot it but they know what to do about it. Because they have already talked about, they will feel more confident about picking up a phone and asking what they can do or knowing who is the right person to refer on to or whether they just need to make an adjustment to the workplace,” says Wang.

Once the training has been completed and evaluated, if it is shown to have made a difference, Royal Mail, for one, may well look to roll it out more widely, she says.

“We will be asking managers how they found it and what they found helped and was good,” Wang says. “Even if it just helps them do their job 10% better, that will be a success.”

Useful links




How the programme has helped in Australia

  • Line managers’ knowledge about depression has increased

  • The proportion of line managers who said they would be prepared to support a colleague with depression rose significantly

  • Understanding of how to manage depression at work and knowledge of where to go for support has risen markedly

  • These changes have not been affected by the type of employment or organisation the manager was from, or by the trainer.

Source: Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health

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