Deal with mental health
Depression in the workplace can have serious effects
By Julia Stirling
Depression has a major impact on the workplace and it is time to face the facts about the issue.
Stigma is a key challenge for people who suffer from depression – misconceptions abound. Many people think depression is just a personality problem rather than an illness, or believe it’s not that common and won’t affect them.
The reality is that more than one million Australians experience depression, anxiety or related substance use disorders each year, and one person in five is affected by depression at some point in their lifetime. Research suggests two-thirds of people who have depression won’t seek help. This has a significant impact on Australian workplaces. For example, depression accounts for three to four days off work per month for each person experiencing depression.
The Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, at the University of Queensland, reports that on average, each employee with depression symptoms will cost their employer $9665 per year, of which they estimated $7878 could be recouped if the affected individuals accessed treatment for their symptoms.
In addition to lost productivity due to presenteeism and absenteeism, there are many secondary effects having significant cost-implications for employers, such as employee attrition, accidents and critical incidents.
Beyondblue is a national, independent, not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, anxiety and related substance use disorders in Australia. Stigma is one of the key reasons beyondblue designed a national workplace program. So far, more than 300 organisations and 25,000 employees have accessed the training. The outcomes are shown to have positively impacted on the rate of recovery, absenteeism, productivity and costs to the organisation.
According to Clare Shann, psychologist and senior program manager for beyondblue’s national workplace program, there has been a marked change in the last 18 months in organisations’ willingness to proactively address the issue; but she says there are still management practices in organisations that aren’t appropriate or effective.
There are two common mismanagement practices – managers often recommend an employee have time off work when they first find out that person has depression – that can often be the worst advice.
Shann says, "There will always be people who do require some time off due to depression. However, one of the most common symptoms of depression is social isolation, and just having time off work in itself can exacerbate that problem, and certainly isn’t an effective treatment in itself.
"The second management practice that we often encounter is a manager who has a staff member on their team who is experiencing depression, and, it is perhaps impacting on their ability to do their job.
"That manager will often just jump into performance managing that individual, rather than having an early, quite casual or informal conversation about that person’s health; which is often the approach managers take if they are concerned about someone’s physical health.
"The key thing is for organisations to think about the wider issues, and really it’s about how can we create a culture at work where mental health problem are managed and responded to in the same way as physical health problems."
Shann explains it’s important for managers to have an informal discussion as early as possible if they are concerned about someone, but she often finds that managers aren’t confident about having those discussions.
John Tacey, the Commonwealth Bank’s area manager for Northern Victoria, participated in the beyondblue national workplace program, and says the training made him take a step back, and stop jumping to conclusions when managing someone having difficulties with performance.
He is now quite happy to engage in informal conversations with staff and says it is important for him to make sure that staff receive the right kind of help. For example, he had one staff member who said they were seeking help from a GP, but when pressed they revealed they were seeking help for a sore back.
Says Tacey, "They hadn’t actually opened their mouth about ‘hey, I’m not feeling good here’. When we finally got them to do that, the doctor changed course altogether."
Tacey stresses the need to back up those informal conversations as a completely separate conversation to work, such as enquiring how the doctor’s appointment went.
"You try not to pry, you don’t want too much information – but people are generally happy to open up."
Tacey says it’s important to ask if they are talking to their family. In many cases he has made doctors appointments for staff but avoids using the word depression. "I just say you need to talk to someone. I’m not there to diagnose anything, you don’t diagnose, you just encourage them to get the right treatment.
"The change for me was having a go at having a conversation. You can’t force people to do things – but by having a conversation you can make a change in things. Sometimes it’s picking up on small things and saying okay, there could be an underlying problem here – I need to have that conversation."
Brendan Keys, executive director of people and performance at ING Australia, says approximately 240 managers have participated in the beyondblue workplace program as part of ING’s mental health and wellbeing program. Initially that participation was voluntary, but because they had such positive feedback they made it mandatory. The education and training was particularly useful for new managers who were keen to find out how they could help staff.
Keys, a psychologist, says "I was very keen to make sure we didn’t have a whole population of managers out there running around trying to be amateur counsellors and psychologists. I wanted them to be able to know who to tap into to get advice, and then let the professionals do their job.
"We raise the awareness of the sorts of symptoms people might present with, and then they (manager) can seek some advice typically from their HR manager, who would probably help them engage with the staff member and preferably link them up with the EAP(Employee Assistance Program) if it was the right thing to do. Managers have reported being able to support and spot symptoms earlier, but the overarching thing was that there was a hell of a lot more understanding and empathy for people.’"
Keys agrees that stigma is one of the key challenges in addressing depression.
"It’s on both sides. You’ve got managers like everybody else who come from society where mental illness in general has a stigma around it – but you’ve also got staff potentially who have a mental health issue such as depression, who stay quiet because of the stigma. So it’s a real double-edged sword. The prevalence of this is rising given the societal pressures in general, so as an employer we felt we had a real obligation to do something about it."
Not all employers have mental health policies in place, and some engage in discrimination against their employees. Shann says many people are genuinely concerned they will lose their job if they show any kind of weakness. Beyondblue gets many anonymous calls from people who say they have either lost their job or their job is on the line because of their depression.
Depression is recognised as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and Shann is surprised and alarmed on discovering that many managers are unaware of this fact.
Human Rights Commissioner Graeme Innes says an employer can’t make a decision not to employ someone because they have a mental illness. "The only exception to that is if the person’s disability means they can’t carry out the inherent requirement of the job. If an employer does discriminate on the grounds of their disability, then that person is entitled to lodge a complaint; and we would investigate that complaint, and we would attempt to resolve it by conciliation."
Innes says there is no requirement for people to reveal they have or had a mental illness when applying for a job, unless that disability prevents them from carrying out the requirements of that job.
The decision to disclose to an employer is a tricky one. Beyondblue never advises on whether to disclose or not disclose, but Shann says one of the most compelling reasons for disclosure is if you require adjustments in the workplace, such as flexible start and finish times, or psychologists appointments during working hours.
The reason for stigma? "I think it is fear driven by a lack of understanding. I really do think that’s the power of information – you can help breakdown some of that fear. In some ways it’s as simple as they’re fearful of what they don’t understand," says Shann.
Deciding to tell
Does your workplace have a mental health policy? Does this indicate that the organisation is open to helping employees who experience depression?
Do you know of anyone else in your workplace who has spoken about their depression? If so, what happened?
What is the level of awareness about depression in your workplace?
What level of stigma regarding mental illness exists in your workplace?
To what extent does your organisation support staff who are experiencing difficulties? How supportive are your colleagues?
The Weekend Australian