Sunday 22 April 2018

Mind Matters - promoting mental health in the workplace

Patricia Casey
Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

Work-related ill health costs both money and heartache. It causes worry, distress and reduction in the quality of life to the ill person and their family, not to mention financial pressure. For the employer it is costly especially if he/she bears the responsibility for the cost of the illness.

It costs the state money in terms of loss of productivity, payment of sickness benefits as well as healthcare costs to those in receipt of treatment. The estimated cost of absenteeism to employers alone in Ireland in 2010 was estimated at around €1.5 billion. It is therefore important to identify the causes of absenteeism and the proportion that are directly related to work.

A study published in Occupational Medicine in January 2015 examined work-related illnesses in Britain and Ireland (north and south). The authors were variously from the Centre for Occupational Health at the University of Manchester, from the HSE Dublin North East and from the South Infirmary-Victoria Hospital, Cork and Cavan-Monaghan Hospitals.

In addition to legislative requirements to report accidents that cause injury resulting in absence from work, additional surveillance schemes widen the coverage to include other work-related illnesses. These might include work-related respiratory and skin diseases orthopaedic injuries, for example from heavy-lifting, and work-generated stress disorders.

Covering the years 2005-2012 inclusive, the study found that, in all three jurisdictions, mental health-related disorders were by far and away the most common reasons cited by the doctors involved (Physicians, Occupational Health doctors and GP's) for work-related ill-health.

To give a flavour of the results: the number of dermatological cases reported for this country was 362, for respiratory conditions 103, for mental health problems 522. Since occupational health physicians reported most cases overall, it is useful to consider the breakdown from them.

Mental health conditions formed 51pc of all reported cases while musculoskeletal conditions (back/neck, limbs and others) constituted 35pc and skin, respiratory and other groups formed the remainder.

The proportion of those with mental health conditions was even slightly higher in Northern Ireland and in Britain than in this country. This figure of 51pc differs hugely from data obtained in Ireland in 2004 where a study of households found that the reasons for work-related illnesses then were mainly musculoskeletal (50pc) while mental health issues formed 20pc of cases.

Why should mental health disorders move up the ladder of work-related disorders to pole position in a decade? One possibility is that the earlier study was based on the reasons patients themselves offered for their work-related illnesses.

It is possible that admitting a mental health problem was too stigmatising. Another explanation is that since health and safety at work legislation was enacted, and equal recognition is given to mental and physical health, employers and Occupational Health Physicians have gained a greater awareness of psychological problems.

Possibly the demands of the workplace have increased, placing more pressure on workers to meet productivity deadlines or to adhere to administrative protocols and such like.

It may be that bullying in the workplace, unspoken and often nascent in the past, is recognised along with an increasing awareness of the adverse consequences of this in all age groups. And the prospect of litigation in these circumstances is likely to be a driving force in bringing this to the attention of employers.

Many, but not all, employers are sensitive to the needs of those with work-related mental health problems and have policies in place to deal with them.

But prevention is the first goal and a good employer should ensure that the person's role and duties are clearly delineated, that relationships are harmonious and that strain and tension will be addressed rather than left to fester.

Those who have some control over certain aspects of their work rather than being the subject of diktat also fare better while training for one's job will improve work-related confidence.

The demands of the job, whether it is the production line or the number of cars a clamper has to lock, must be realistic. And when problems arise having a fair and clear system to examine them must be in place.

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