Work Place Blues

Poor work-life balance, long and anti-social working hours and pressure to perform in a competitive environment are common workplace concerns that can result in stress.  With between 30% and 60% of absence thought to be stress related, it’s clear to see that Scottish workers and businesses are fighting a fierce battle against work-related stress.

You might argue that you’re only stressed at work but when you consider that up to 80% of your personal energy goes into work: being at work, traveling to work, worrying or complaining about work. Imagine the impact a positive working experience has on your life?

Recent research points to the fact that depression and anxiety have now replaced back-pain as the most common reason for prolonged absence from work. Surprising isn’t it? Well, not if you consider that almost three quarters of Scots know someone close to them who has been diagnosed with a mental health problem.

Also, approximately 250,000 Scots have clinically significant depression at any one time with stress the most common reason for Scots visiting their GP.

Add to that, a massive 40% more per head being spent on prescriptions for anti-depressants in Scotland than in England; you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that the problem is widespread.

However, depression is not only a major mental health issue in Scotland but it is also, increasingly, a major workplace issue. It costs employers millions a year in lost productivity alone. This loss in productivity comes not only from absenteeism due to the disorder but is the product of so-called ‘presenteeism’.

This can be defined by people with depression showing up for work but not functioning at anywhere near full capacity, failing to return phone calls, turning in poor-quality work, missing deadlines altogether, not following up on new business leads, being paralysed with indecision, inability to face work at all, coming in late, leaving early, or not even returning from lunch, difficulty getting along with colleagues, withdrawing from the social environment at work.

A Health & Safety Executive initiative called Work Positive is geared towards identifying all known causes of workplaces stress.

Robert Atkinson, national coordinator comments: “Stress is not only bad for an individual’s health but, in small companies particularly, stress is also very bad for business, resulting in the loss of key staff and reduced productivity.  Businesses have a legal and moral obligation to address work-related stress and we regularly signpost small businesses to ‘Work Positive’ for free and easily implemented risk assessment advice to ensure they follow best practice, help to protect and improve staff health and well-being and don’t fall foul of the law.

John Stevenson, secretary of the Edinburgh branch of Unison, reports “a steady stream of stress related cases.” Stevenson suggests that “bad management and an increase in workload seem to be the cause of the majority of cases. Employers must recognise that an employee’s performance will suffer through stress & the longer it goes on the worse it gets for all concerned.

Many cases of work place stress can be directly attributed to placing an unrealistic burden on an employee. “With tighter management structures there is less flexibility than in past to share workload amongst staff therefore you have a situation where more is expected of an individual. I think it is crucial that management improve their recognition of this issue although I do believe there has been progress in recent times.”{mospagebreak}

Increasingly employers are recognising that they should be taking steps to ensure the workplace is a pleasant place to be. ‘Softening’ workplaces are one of the measures the DTI have drawn up to counter stress and anxiety amongst UK companies.

Having identified a direct parallel between the workplace environment & stress, employers are being urged to consider ways in which their offices are more enjoyable environments. Also, with a significant growth in the number of stress relates legal claims on employers, it is now more important than ever that employers understand and know how to respond appropriately to mental health issues in the workplace.

See Me is the national campaign to eliminate the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health problems and is run by an alliance of five Scottish mental health organisations.

These organisations are Highland Users Group (HUG), National Schizophrenia Fellowship (Scotland), Penumbra, Royal College of Psychiatrists (Scottish Division) and Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

Campaign Director Linda Dunion said “It is clear that mental ill-health is exacting a heavy toll in workplaces.  Last year our own survey of people with experience of mental health problems found that 57% had concealed their mental health history when applying for a job and 43% had just not applied for a job for which they were qualified because of how their mental health history might be perceived. 

Having a diagnosis of mental ill-health does not automatically mean that someone can no longer do his or her job but that is too often the assumption that is made by colleagues and managers alike.

DTI research reinforces the importance of eliminating such stigma in the workplace and making sure that all employees, particularly those in management roles, have mental health awareness training backed up with robust policies and practice.”

Taking the lead on improving mental health awareness in the Scottish workplace are Scotland’s Health At Work (SHAW). SHAW employ 60 professional advisors to engage employers on strategies aimed at improving employee’s mental & physical health.

Programme head, Nina Goodlad, highlighted some areas employers could improve. “”Carrying out a stress risk assessment and taking action to reduce stress in the workplace is an important step towards creating a mentally healthy workplace. 

It is also recommended that workplaces have a mental health policy in place, training for line managers on supporting staff with mental health problems, general mental health awareness for all staff and access to occupational health and counseling services.”

With 1400 hundred companies already signed up, there seems to be a definite recognition of the employee’s welfare.{mospagebreak}

Case Study
Shaun McNeil, Livingston

Shaun’s mental health problems have gradually developed over the last few years. He began working as a staff nurse in an acute psychiatric hospital ward in 1993, and in 1999 he began to lose focus. Shaun believes that his mental health problems are a result of the stresses he faced working on the ward. Driving to work one day, Shaun felt so low he considered driving his car into a bridge. He had a change of heart and instead drove himself to A&E and asked to see a duty psychiatrist. There he was diagnosed with severe depression.

Shaun has had one major relapse since his first diagnosis, due to the pressures he faced at work. When he initially returned to the workplace, after his spell in hospital, he felt that the attitudes of his colleagues had dramatically changed.

Despite having worked there for six years Shaun was made to feel excluded from the team, a feeling that was furthered as rumours about his mental health problems began to circulate. Without people giving him a chance they automatically believed the worst. Shaun felt certain that his colleagues, despite their professional training, were ‘scared’ of what had happened to him, fearing that it might also happen to them.

Occupational Health advised Shaun that it would be better if he moved to work on another ward. Instead he decided to go into mental health advocacy, a decision that was considered to be wrong by his colleagues who scrawled the word ‘traitor’ across his office door.

Shaun found the nursing care he received himself was of a very poor standard. When admitted to hospital the medication he was initially given failed to work. He consented to being given seven doses of ECT over four weeks; however this left him with retrograde memory loss.

Since then Shaun has tried a wide range of anti-depressants; the only supplement he takes now is St John’s Wort. He also found that his CPN used him to open up about his own problems, because Shaun had worked in the metal health services himself.

He believes this is a direct result of the lack of a support network available for those working in the mental health service.

Useful Resources;

See Me Scotland
Breathing Space
Depression Alliance Scotland
Royal College of Psychiatrists Depression Information
Young Minds Depression Information
Work Positive
Scotland’ Health at Work