It stands to reason that if you’re ill with something physical, especially if it’s long term, it may have a knock-on effect to your mental health and wellbeing. But employers are sometimes too hasty to compartmentalise “health” into one or the other – and therefore overlook the potential benefits of taking a more joined-up approach to occupational health.
Employee health and wellbeing – making the connections between physical and mental ill-health
According to the Department of Health, more than 15 million people live with one or more long-term health conditions. And more than four million of these also have a mental health problem.
It is becoming increasingly well-recognised that those with a long-term condition are two to three times more likely to develop mental ill-health. Indeed, people with two or more long-term conditions are seven times more likely to experience depression than those without a long-term condition.
None of this, of course, should be that surprising to anyone who has ever spent any long-term time off sick or had to go through a period of painful convalescence because of a physical illness or injury.
Being sick or injured isn’t fun, it isn’t nice – none of us chooses to be ill, after all. And for many of us work and our careers give us an identity and purpose in life, as well as providing material benefits for us and our families.
Therefore, to be stuck at home, perhaps worried about the finances or even your long-term ability to return to work can take a mental or emotional toll.
This can be the case, too, if you’re back at work but perhaps struggling to manage your duties or responsibilities because you are not yet fully recovered or perhaps they have not been properly adjusted. Again, there can be worries around performance and reputation, and frustration that you’re not 100%.
What is the answer, then, as an employer or manager looking to provide better workplace and employee health support, or even in the context of your organisation’s occupational health provider?
Occupational health, resources, and training
It is both simple and complicated. The simple part is about recognising that employee physical ill-health and mental ill-health-related absence may not be discrete or separate.
The key then as a manager – and the more complex bit – is to be supporting and managing employee mental health in an holistic joined-up way; to recognise the possibility (even probability) that, for example, a chronic long-term back problem may develop a mental ill-health element to it in time.
Similarly, it is important to recognise that work-related stress can aggravate an existing mental health problem or worry, making it more difficult to control.
Of course, common mental health problems and stress can exist independently. People can experience work-related stress and physical changes, such as high blood pressure, without having anxiety and depression. They can also have anxiety and depression without stress.
Who can help navigate this minefield? The expertise of occupational health is one important resource to call upon of course, especially for more complex cases. There are useful online tools you can turn to as well, especially the Health and Safety Executive’s stress Management Standards.
Resilience and emotional intelligence training for your managers and, indeed, your employees generally may help.
Value of EAPs
Finally, access to an Employee Assistance Programme can also be a good call. An EAP can provide both confidential counselling for employees but also (and this is less well-recognised) valuable best practice advice, guidance and support for managers.
As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, makes clear, the message that can be sent out to the organisation from having this provision in place can be a powerful one.
“Having an EAP makes it loud and clear that you take mental ill-health seriously and you want to create an environment where people can feel comfortable and confident about coming forward and talking about it,” she says.
“But an EAP can also be an invaluable tool and resource for managers in terms of best practice, how to open conversations in this area, education and, just as importantly, when to get in expert help.
“Part of this, too, is about helping managers to recognise that a chronic or long-term physical illness or injury needs, yes, to be treated as a physical recovery and rehabilitation project. But there may also be important mental and emotional health elements to it that need to be addressed if the employee is going to make a full, productive and long-term return to work,” she adds.