Psychological disorders are often referred to as ‘invisible’ as there is no physical evidence of the condition as there is with, for example, a broken arm. Despite this, the impact is anything but invisible to both employers and employees. They are the fastest rising cause for short and long-term disabilities; they are expected to exceed 50 per cent of all claims administered within the next five years. They contribute to conflict, accidents, injuries and incidents.
Furthermore, emerging changes in policy and legislation at a provincial and federal level such as the upcoming national standards for psychological health and safety — as well as recent court rulings holding employers accountable for the psychological health of staff – will place an increasing responsibility on business to adequately and effectively deal with psychosocial risk factors that manifest in the workplace.
Many employers recognize this and realize that doing nothing is not an option but don’t know what to do. The following tips are offered in response to this dilemma:
Make managing mental health disorders in the workplace a high priority.
This should be based on a solid business case that demonstrates the relevance of worker mental health to organizational priorities and strategic plans. Support from senior management for these efforts needs to be clearly communicated throughout the organization.
Measure the impact of psychological disorders in the workplace.
The most obvious indicators are things like absenteeism, number of long term disability cases and benefits costs. These so-called trailing indicators are very important, but may not reflect some of the subtler signs such as grievances, injuries or accidents, ‘flaming out’ or unexpected loss of skilled staff, team conflict or low morale.
Identify the risks to employee psychological health.
Rising costs and regulatory requirements have helped pave the way for organizations to make strong advances and progress in identifying and addressing workplace factors that contribute to worker physical illness and injury. There are a number of useful tools available to accomplish this.
Address identified workplace and workforce hazards.
This should entail interventions aimed at both minimizing the presence or impact of organizational hazards while at the same time supporting the workforce is building their capacity to manage possible risks.
Provide information, programs and policies that promote early recognition and response to employee distress.
As with any problem, the earlier that a problem is identified and acted upon the better the outcome. If an emerging psychological concern such as anxiety or depression is appropriately addressed there is a much greater likelihood that intervention will be effective, workplace morale and functioning will be maintained and disability will be prevented.
Provide managers and supervisors with resources and supports to address workplace mental health issues.
Managers and supervisors play a critical role in determining if employee distress is resolved or gets worse. To do this effectively, managers and supervisors need ongoing support and training and should have access to useful tools and programs to address the mental health of employees. It important to recognize that managers are by no means immune to distress; they also need supports to maintain their own psychological health.
Review current processes, programs and policies with a psychological health lens.
Do selection processes and position descriptions adequately encompass the interpersonal, cognitive and emotional aspects of the job? Do health and safety and/or wellness initiatives provide information, resources and programs to help employees maintain their psychological health? Do benefits and/or EFAP services provide adequate access to mental health interventions that are proven to make a difference?
Help employees who are, or may be, dealing with psychological health issues to stay at work. Studies have found that the majority of individuals with a diagnosed, or diagnosable, mental health condition are not off work or on disability but remain in the workplace. Employers that recognize the practical and ethical merits of providing appropriate support for the employee while they address their health issues are more likely to avoid extended absenteeism and disability.
Work together to assist with returning employees off work because of a psychological health condition in a timely, safe and appropriate manner.
Regardless of the condition, the longer someone is off work the harder and more difficult it is going to be to successfully return to work. Thus the best form of planning for work return begins at the point where the employee goes off work in the first place. This is most likely to occur when there is honest and respectful but honest communication between the employer, the insurer or disability manager, the union (when appropriate), the employee and their treatment or rehabilitation provider.
Prevent or minimize relapse or recurrence.
Although there are effective treatments for psychological disorders, they may recur. It is therefore important to plan for ‘slips’ in a timely manner so that they are less likely to impair functioning and result in RTD (return to disability). These efforts will only be successful if the working environment is psychologically healthy.
Further information on these actions, and many others, will soon be available in a free national guide commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “Psychological Health and Safety: An Action Guide for Employers”.
Dr. Merv Gilbert is a consultant and an occupational health psychologist and principal in Gilbert Acton Ltd. He is an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally printed in HRvoice.org on January 23, 2012.
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