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Companies need to track absences more closely to uncover mental health issues in their workforce

Mental Health

Should companies track absences to help uncover mental health issues in their workforce? Is an idea suggested by Adrian Lewis, director at Activ Absence, to help overcome stigmas and better support staff suffering from mental health conditions.

Research from health insurer BHSF found that a fifth (42%) of UK employees call in sick citing a physical illness, when the real reason is a mental health issue. The report found that over half (56%) of employees admitted suffering from stress, a third (36%) from anxiety and a quarter from depression (25%). But, many workers suffer in silence. Only 15 per cent would tell their boss the truth about having a mental health issue.

Adrian Lewis, director at Activ Absence said: “employers can do more to help. Employers have a duty of care to look after their staff’s mental wellbeing but too often employers don’t know where to start.

“Technology can be used to track short and long-term absences and identify if someone is suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. If people are taking regular days off sick or more days off than usual, it could be a sign something more serious is going on. Absence management software highlights recurring patterns and provides insight for employers, so they can to talk to their staff gently and privately to discuss the real causes of sick days.

“Open communication about mental health is also essential. People would rather be perceived as being lazy than having a mental health problem, so leaders must reassure people there are no stigmas around mental health. They could also promote mental health support services such as EAPs or counselling and use great events such as World Mental Health day to communicate positive mental health messages.” adds Mr Lewis.

Here are Adrian Lewis’s tips for improving workplace mental health:

  • Talk about stress and mental health to get rid of any stigmas. Engage with stressed employees before they reach the stage where they need to take long term absence.
  • Line manager training is vital – they see employees every day. With the support of occupational health, they can be trained to spot the early signs of stress and depression.
  • Take short term absences seriously. If employees are off sick, ensure they complete a return to work form about the absence. Follow this up with a gentle return to work interview.
  • When conducting a return to work interview, interviewers need to see beyond the words. Communicate that mental health issues are as valid as physical illness and can be used as a reason for absence.
  • During the return to work interview gently probe the given reason for absence. Do they seem tired or sad? Is there something that ‘feels’ not quite right? Occupational health can train line managers on the signs to look out for.
  • Ask if the employee needs support and let them know a) that you care and b) remind them of any support provisions within the company benefits package or within occupational health.
  • Once a mental health issue is identified, consider if flexible working arrangements or special adjustments would help. Could the employee work from home one day a week, or come to work later if, for example, their medication makes them sleepy first thing in the morning?

Lewis concludes: “Mental health issues are a growing problem, but there is a lot more employers can do to recognise the signs, encourage a culture of openness and offer support where it’s needed. Understanding your staff and getting to the root causes of absenteeism is a good place to start and can make a big difference to the outcome for both the business and the employee.”