Figures from the charity Mind suggest that one in four people in the UK is diagnosed with a mental illness at some time in their life. This may not seem to be a core concern for HR, but workplace stress can lead to serious and long-term mental health issues.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 30.9 working days lost, and almost 13 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2004-05.
If people who are heading for more serious problems can get support and counselling early on, the severity of their condition can be reduced. But how can HR spot the early warning signs of more serious mental health problems?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Not only are the early stages of mental illness often difficult to pinpoint, but people are also wary of letting managers know that they are suffering from a problem of this kind.
“There is still a stigma about mental health problems,” says Dr Peter Mills, chief health officer at workplace health consultancy Vielife. “It’s not seen as acceptable, and there are still cases of people going off sick with ‘back pain’ when what they really have is a mental health problem.”
But HR does have a key role to play, Mills believes.
“There should be policies in place and an early warning system, so that individuals at risk can be identified and referred to appropriate services,” he says. “Organisations are realising that they have a proactive role to play.”
Absence management policies can help. If someone goes off sick and they are contacted on day one, underlying problems may be picked up.
“People who are heading for serious depression often have a pattern of absence – days when they don’t appear, extra time off taken over weekends and so on,” says Mills. “You can pick up on this and provide support at an early stage, from a counselling service or employee assistance programme (EAP).”
Annual health questionnaires for all staff can also be a useful early warning device. The key is to be systematic, and ask all staff the pertinent questions as part of routine management, rather than waiting for something to go wrong.
Mills also warns against dumping the whole issue onto an external EAP. “One of the pitfalls in organisations is to see an EAP service as all that is needed,” he says. “You should have a mechanism for recognising warning signs early, and a range of options to support people.”
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, agrees that EAPs are by no means a panacea for this problem. “The trouble with external EAP programmes is that they can be too hands-free,” he says. “They don’t always understand the organisations that bring them in.
“They should maintain the anonymity of staff, but also find out about the organisation, what the issues are, and feed back any details about organisational problems.”
Spotting the danger signs is not rocket science, says Cooper. “The first thing to look out for is any change in behaviour – if someone who is normally laid back suddenly becomes short-tempered, for instance, or if someone who is normally sociable becomes socially isolated.”
Difficulty concentrating or losing a sense of humour or perspective should also be a cause for concern.
But HR will always suffer from the perception that confidentiality is not guaranteed, says Cooper. “People are reluctant to tell HR [about mental health issues] in case it goes on their records,” he says. “They think it will jeopardise their prospects in an insecure job market.
“My view is that HR has to get beyond the fact that people know it will be involved in laying people off when an organisation is downsizing. The feeling is that there is a conflict of interest for HR, and you can’t trust HR to be dispassionate. Each organisation has to find its own way of overcoming this.”