Although it is well documented that the modern workplace can be a source for depression and stress, on many occasions a return to work can actually help aid recovery and help depressed individuals.
However, experts warn that employers need to be sensitive and consider a range of interventions including changing an employees tasks and reducing hours to help people when they return to work.
A new UK study addresses the issue. The study followed more than 500 people who were unable to work with depression from a variety of industries over the course of a year. A return to employment significantly promoted recovery.
Importantly, it was the approach and flexibility of their employers that proved vital.
The study echoes the findings of Dame Carol Black’s Review ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’ which recognized that for most people work is good both for their long-term health and for their family’s well-being. The review found that ill health was costing the country $100 billion a year — $40 billion of which was related to mental health.
“Better access to occupational health services and psychological support are essential if employees with depression and anxiety are to get back to work quickly” said Dr Gordon Parker, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine.
“‘Employers are often frightened of contacting an employee whose sick note says ‘depression’ for fear of being accused of harassment, but sympathetic contact with the employee and early help through occupational health can identify the most appropriate support.
Occupational health services are ideally placed to advise managers and employees on the best return to work plan and should be involved early in the management of the employee’s absence”.
In any one year about 1 in every 4 employees in the UK will have a mental health problem, and depression is one of the most common. It is not just distressing for the person involved. It makes them less productive at work and is responsible for high rates of sick-leave, accidents and staff turnover.
Work often plays one of the largest roles in shaping people’s identity. Because of this, if employees are absent for some time due to anxiety or depression, this can add to feelings of a lack of self-worth. Men especially appear to identify and gain some of their self-worth and identity from the value of their work.
This study shows that going back to work is often one of the most important factors in speeding up a return to full health. It provides an opportunity to regain a sense of self-esteem and puts routine and stability back into people’s lives. People who do not go back to work as quickly seem to continue to experience ongoing health issues.
A good occupational health team can help senior management develop programs to educate line managers and the workforce about depression so that the problem is recognized, appropriate early intervention given and employees are helped to return to work.
Occupational Health staff will know about the particular stresses and strains of the work environment and have experience of sensitive issues such as workplace confidentiality, job security and the timing of the return to part-time or full-time working. They are also well placed to work closely with family doctors or other specialist health services.
Depression and anxiety are now the most common reasons for people starting to claim long term sickness benefits. By investing in occupational health services, senior management teams can play a key role in helping individuals return to work. This will improve the overall performance of the organization and of individual employees and reduce the costs of sickness absence.
The study was published in the journal Occupational Medicine.
Source: Society of Occupational Medicine