By Mike O’Donnell
Validate. Don’t Recriminate
You’ve all probably heard tales of employees with such an impeccable record that they’ve not had a day off sick in 30 years.
I’m not here to negate the value of these stalwart employees – but avoiding illness is not simply a matter of willpower or the right lifestyle.
Like you, I know otherwise highly capable and driven employees who, seemingly, did everything right, only to felled by a health issue.
And to be clear, I’m not talking here about the odd day off. Last year, 46 per cent of employees took no time off due to illness and the average for those that did was 5.6 days. Neither am I referring to colleagues struck by an unambiguous condition, such as heart attack or cancer, which could not and would not be hidden from colleagues.
What I am referring to is the increasing number of people suffering from depression or other forms of mental illness.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem during the course of a yea, while between 8 and 12% of the population experiences depression in any given year.
Yet, despite the scale of this issue, for many employees the condition can be accompanied by unjustified feelings of guilt and shame. And, despite living in a more open society, there remains prejudice based upon misunderstanding of how it is caused, how it manifests itself and the cure.
Let’s start with the good news; data from the Office of National Statistics finds that about half of people with common mental health problems are no longer affected after 18 months.
However, diagnosing the problem can be a tortuous process. Employees often don’t wish to admit, even to themselves, that they may an issue. And, unfortunately, the attitude in many work places can be unforgiving. It such environments, impacted staff may have to steer a path between attitudes that treat mental health conditions as either personal weakness (the old approach of ‘pull yourself together’) or, worse, deliberate malingering.
In the vast majority of cases, the employee has no more control of the issue than a patient with cardiovascular complications.
For companies, understanding the nature of these conditions is paramount. And managers, by simply being there for their staff, can spot and help address the problems sooner, saving both the individual and the organisation a lot of unnecessary heartache.
For the employee, it is much better to acknowledge that there is a problem – even if they cannot diagnose it themselves.
Among the more obvious signs in a work environment could be regular absenteeism – especially by an employee who has previously had a good attendance record. Additionally, sudden falls in productivity or quality of work can be a signal.
Obviously, you shouldn’t go rushing in with a diagnosis – there are many other issues leading to such behaviours which have nothing to do with anxiety or depression.
It is also important here to acknowledge the fear that some managers have. Even if it is not articulated, there is sometimes a concern that the company has ‘pushed the employee too hard’ or other concerns that the work environment has contributed to the condition.
The workplace may exacerbate the issue but managers need to approach this with just two questions in mind:
How can I help my colleague?
How can I get back them back to their old self? (productive, motivated, committed …)
I am not advocating that a company is entirely responsible for an employee’s health, beyond their statutory duties. But, if we (somewhat simplistically) look at it from a business perspective, supporting an otherwise productive colleague to overcome their problems makes financial sense. By doing so, you protect the organisation’s investment in training, experience, client relationships. The list goes on.
The first step is simple; remain vigilant. If you work with a colleague on a daily basis, it is often easier for you to spot problems before they themselves have recognised that anything is wrong.
The second step is to just talk. Make sure they know that they are valued and that they can discuss otherwise private subjects with you. Even if the potential causes are entirely non-work related, by lending a sympathetic ear an employer can provide their employee with a much needed sense of support; especially at a time everything else may seem so uncertain, knowing that your boss is watching out for you can be a considerable help.
And don’t forget that, for those organisations with private health cover, many insurers now include treatment of mental health issues as part of the package.
The final point is a more difficult one to tackle – especially from the perspective of the employee. Employees are often very reluctant to reveal the nature of their condition to colleagues for fear of the pervasive prejudice. Every employee in an organisation should appreciate that mental health is a genuine condition and that the company will stand by them as they seek treatment.