Warning: any member of the kneejerk brigade should have their hammers at the ready, and should begin tapping their patellas furiously in preparation for getting really, leg-twitchingly annoyed, for we are about to enter into dangerous territory. Into the mouth of madness, as it were.
How many workplaces across the UK display the cheery sign ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’?
Yet when it comes to talking about mental ill health, people find the subject too difficult to tackle – either preferring to ignore the subject for as long as possible, or taking the moral high ground and pontificating furiously about the need to confront the issue in a caring and sharing kind of way.
Mental ill health is undoubtedly something that most people will have some experience of at one time or another – either personally, or as a witness – and is, therefore, one of the few things that most people would be qualified to discuss.
But, by and large, we choose not to. And employers seem more reticent than the average person, with only 5% of them acknowledging that members of the workforce have any such problems.
However, the Shaw Trust rightly argues that employers need to wake up to the fact that many people in their workforce will have some form of mental breakdown at some time. And the recent House of Lords ruling that an employer has to pay compensation for failing to spot an employee’s suicidal tendencies suggests that employers should take the matter seriously.
But the TUC’s recent call for employers to encourage job applications from people with mental health difficulties and to urge individuals to disclose any mental health problems they may have (PersonnelToday.com, 16 May) shows that it has only the most tenuous grip on reality.
It suggests that organisations should abandon their fears about employing people with known mental health conditions, yet apart from some generalised information about how to spot symptoms of mental distress, gives few clues to help managers actually deal with the problem.
According to the TUC work-related stress accounts for over a third of all new incidences of ill health, and each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 30.9 working days lost. It says this equates to 12.8 million working days being lost to stress, depression and anxiety every year. Stress, it must be stressed – unlike ‘pressure’, which can be a positive motivating force – leads to mental ill health.
According to Tim Cooper, managing director of the Shaw Trust the failure to manage mental health in the workplace costs the UK economy as much as £9bn in salaries alone, not including the impact on productivity (Personnel Today ITALS, 22 April).
And figures form the Office for National Statistics show that at least one in four employees experiences stress, anxiety, and other forms of mental ill health (Personneltoday.com, 1 February).
The workplace is full of delusional individuals getting by and going up the ladder despite their obvious shortcomings. And as people have a tendency to employ people who are like themselves, that already provides an open door to a fresh supply of people with depression, anxiety and the like.
Sit up and take notice
So just getting employers to be aware of the problem in their midst would be a good start. For instance, it is arguable that anyone who chooses to work more than 40 hours a week clearly has a disorder of the frontal cortex.
The Health and Safety Executive helpfully provides a list of mental health symptoms for managers to spot impending trouble.
The most common signs of of anxiety are palpitations, headache, back ache, breathing difficulties, feeling on edge, worrying excessively and panic attacks. And when it comes to out-and-out depression, symptoms include inability to concentrate, impaired sleep, bouts of crying, poor appetite and general fatigue.
A role for OH
Clearly, investing in an occupational health service would be a good starting point. And if so many of us are suffering with mental health problems, surely it would be a dereliction of duty for any organisation anywhere to knowingly court even more mentally distressed individuals who might pose a danger to existing members of staff – not to mention members of the public or other people being served by the organisation? That way madness lies.
Any discriminating employer would aim to give jobs to the people best qualified to do them. Sadly, but correctly, that would rule out people who would struggle to cope due to some mental frailty.
And unfortunately, there really is no business case for employing someone with mental health difficulties. Unless, of course, you know differently.