Time to act on depression

It’s with good reason that the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) World Health Day on 7 April will focus on depression. Depression is the largest cause of disability worldwide and, at worst, can lead to suicide, says the WHO. More than 80% of this disease burden is among people living in low- and middle-income countries.

In the UK, one in six adults met the criteria for a common mental disorder in 2014, according to the latest official data. This means that most of us will have either experienced depression ourselves or know someone who has – even if you are not aware of it.

Depression is one of the most common types of mental ill health, and it can be hard to pin down a precise definition. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) describes it as ‘a broad and heterogeneous diagnosis’, and ‘central to it is depressed mood and/or loss of pleasure in most activities.’ Like many mental health conditions, depression can cover a broad spectrum: mental health charity Mind says that: ‘in its mildest form, depression can mean just being in low spirits. It doesn’t stop you leading your normal life but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, depression can be life-threatening because it can make you feel suicidal or simply give up the will to live.’

Although many people experiencing depression carry on working, having a mental health problem can make it harder for someone to find employment, and is one of the most important issues that employers need to address. The CIPD 2016 Absence management survey, in partnership with Simplyhealth, found that two in five (41%) employers had identified an increase in reported mental health problems over the past few months. As many people with a mental health condition don’t feel confident enough to disclose it at work, the issue is likely to be even more significant than the statistics suggest.

CIPD research published in 2016 shows there is some way to go before most organisations develop an effective framework to support people’s mental health at work. The research is based on a survey over 2,000 employees to identify their experiences and attitudes about mental health in the workplace. The results shed an important light on how depression or another mental health issue can affect people’s working life, and also the level of support provided by their employer.

Half (50%) of those who describe their mental health as poor have taken time off work for this reason but, conversely, half (49%) of those experiencing poor mental health have never taken time off because of it. As well as challenging the assumption that an individual with a mental health problem will necessarily experience a significant level of sickness absence, this finding highlights the importance of employers having in place a good framework to support people’s mental health on a day-to-day basis at work.

It’s not surprising that individuals who are experiencing poor mental health find that it impacts on their behaviour if they are at work; just 4% say that poor mental health does not affect their work performance with the main impact is finding it difficult to concentrate (85% of respondents), followed by it taking longer to perform tasks (64%) and difficulty in making decisions (54%).

In all, less than half of respondents (46%) report that their organisation supports employees who experience mental health problems very well or fairly well, while one in five (20%) say that their organisation supports such employees not very well or not at all.

Our survey also shows that well under half (44%) of employees would feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager. Creating an open culture around mental health is the first fundamental step in raising awareness about mental health issues and fostering an environment where people feel comfortable to disclose their own experience of poor mental health: if individuals don’t disclose their mental health problem at work, they will not receive any organisational support if it is available.

There are a number of measures that employers could put in place to promote good mental health and support people who experience poor mental health, including access to occupational health services, counselling, and phased return-to-work. The role of line managers is also crucial and it’s disappointing that employees report that just 10% of their employers provide training for line managers in how to manage and support people with mental health issues.

Much of the day-to-day responsibility for managing the mental health of employees falls on line managers, including implementing stress management initiatives and encouraging those with problems at work or home to seek appropriate help and support. Training in this area is vital to ensure that managers have the confidence and competence to implement policies sensitively and fairly, and can hold difficult conversations with individuals when needed. Training line managers to have an open and supportive dialogue with staff, and having the knowledge to signpost people to specialist sources of support if necessary, are fundamental elements of how an employer should encourage good mental health at work.

To end this post on a more positive note, the WHO says that, fortunately, depression can be prevented and treated. But this will not happen without targeted resources and concerted action in terms of health and welfare services and employment. From a workplace perspective, if people have good mental health, and feel supported during times of poor mental health, it is not a leap to assume that they will feel more motivated, engaged and productive at work. The urgency with which employers should be addressing this agenda will only increase, and not abate, in the years to come. 

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  • As a result of coaching within organisations I have helped several clients seek help for depression that would otherwise have gone undetected. I have developed a 'mens only' coaching programme for a large financial services company, aimed at 25-40 yr olds. Due to tragic circumstances they had several young male employees take their life. My programme has been designed to help them support their employees at an age where men are very vulnerable. Given the depression and suicide rate within this cohort it is a surprise that more employers don't have this on their agenda because as you rightly suggest, there are so many positives for all.