June 8, 2007

Publication: Irish Examiner Money & Jobs Date: Friday, June 8, 2007 Page: 4

Headline: Time to break the taboo on mental illness to break the taboo on mental illness

MENTAL illness is arguably the last great taboo area. Employers balk at the idea of hiring people who suffer from such conditions. As a result, the unwell often find themselves trapped in the no man's land of joblessness. But many existing members of the workforce fall ill. This is a problem employers simply cannot ignore. It has been estimated that as many as one in six adults has experienced mental difficulties in the past two years.

A project team of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) has just released a report on mental health and social inclusion. It examines how some community groups here and overseas are seeking to tackle the problem. The report also contains some useful tips for employers faced with unwell members of staff. The authors conclude that employers are not sufficiently promoting positive mental, health in the workplace. Training and guidance for employers is not widely promoted or sufficiently specific on mental ill health. Negative attitudes mean employees are reluctant to disclose any mental health difficulty in the knowledge that their boss is less likely to promote them and may well assign them to reduced areas of responsibility. And job candidates are particularly reluctant to inform prospective employers of any difficulties in this area. The NESF also calls for a strengthened role for the Health And Safety Authority in this area. We live in a fast paced working world where heavy schedules can play their part in helping to trigger personal meltdowns.

The UK's Social Inclusion Unit has reported that two thirds of people with mental health problems "believe that unrealistic workloads, long hours and bad management caused or exacerbated their problems". Kyran Fitzgerald Many employees are forced to leave work as a result of an illness such as depression or nervous breakdown However, management also faces enormous pressures. Is it realistic to expect those running smaller firms in particular to have special arrangements in place to address this problem?

The NESF notes that under equality law, employers are under a duty to "make reasonable accommodation in the employment of people with mental disabilities". This may be achieved, for example, by adjusting work schedules, allowing for flexible rostering, restructuring the job, and through formalised mentoring and supervision. The NESF concedes that SMEs face particular challenges. "While larger companies have more employees to support, they also usually reap the benefit of a dedicated human resource department and a larger workforce to cover any absences. However, their workforce can be more anonymous." A typical comment from a small firm goes as follows: 'We don't have the luxury of carrying somebody.' This is particularly the case with firms operating in the fast growing service sector. One approach has been to come up with targeted campaigns aimed at assisting understanding of the issues.

In England, some state groups actively seek out business partners in an effort to boost the campaign to change attitudes in the workplace towards those with a mental illness. Many employees are forced to leave work as a result of an illness, such as depression, or nervous breakdown. Researchers estimate that the longer that person is away from work the probability that they will ever return is steadily reduced. For those absent between three and six months, the return rate is less than 50%, dropping to 20% in the case of people away for more than a year. Many now believe that employers must be involved much more closely in the rehabilitation process. The authors, McAnaney and Wynne, maintain that where this is the case success rates are much higher. In some cases, however, doctors may unwittingly contribute to the problem through a willingness to sign sick notes when reintegration back into the workforce is what is required.

The World Health Organisation has come up with a recommended list of return to work steps which companies can take. First, the employee should be visited as soon as possible so that concern can be demonstrated. The staff member can be encouraged to return to work. It is suggested that an attempt should be made to return the worker to his, or her old job, even if this means some accommodation, such as flexible working. Local community groups and support services can be of considerable assistance. The employee's doctor should be kept regularly informed of developments. Remember that the alternative may involve a trip to the Employment Appeals Tribunal and a significant compensation payout.

Various projects exist to assist in the community. For example, in West Dublin, the Programme for Integration Project, PINEL, offers a 20 week training course aimed at assisting people with mental illness in identifying progression opportunities. However, huge gaps exist. A recent Health Research Board study identified a "clear lack of multi disciplinary and recovery teams" for the provision of rehab programmes. There is a shortage of step down services. Britain is well ahead of us in this area. In South Essex, for example, there are four community mental health teams at work. Service users expressing a desire to return to work are offered the support of an employment specialist. We have a long way to go in this whole area.