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Mental health in the workplace


English batsman, Jonathan Trott, has just left England’s Ashes tour of Australia, after the first test match. due to a long-term stress related illness. He said: “I don’t feel it is right that I’m playing knowing that I’m not 100% and I cannot operate at the level I have done in the past. My priority now is to take a break from cricket so that I can focus on my recovery. I want to wish my team-mates all the best for the remainder of the tour.”

Nearly every day someone tries to take their life on Britain’s railways, and now thousands of rail staff have been trained to spot the signs before it is too late.

Sharon Willett was eight hours into her shift for East Coast Trains when she noticed a teenage boy sitting alone on a platform bench. He was cocooned in his hooded top and looked like he might be crying, but as he was hiding his face she could not be sure. He had not boarded any of the trains that had passed through, so she had started to become concerned and her training kicked in.

Willett tried to talk to him about his trainers and whether he liked trains, but he launched into a barrage of abuse before breaking down crying. “He just poured his heart out to me, saying he hated life, he hated evrything and he wanted it all to just go away and it was going to go away tonight.

It was then he started to soften and she found he had been bullied at school. She also realised that she was going to be able to help him.

Willett is one of 5,000 staff to have been through a Samaritans programme ehich teaches staff abpot suicide, what signs to look out for and how to help those who might be at risk. They are asked to look out for people who have been around for a while, failing to board trains, to ask, “are they strangely dressed, or removing clothes? Try to strike up a conversation and attempt to re-engage if they tell you to go away. Then lead them to safety.

Suicides on the traintracks have knock-on effects. Last year Network Rail, which has invested £5 million in the scheme, paid out £33m to train companies to compensate them for disruption caused by rail suicides. They led to almost 5,000 hours of delays for passengers.

Neil Henry, chair of the rail industry’s National Suicide Prevention Group, says the programme is about more than

saving money. “This is people’s lives we’;re talking about, rather than a balance sheet. “What’s important is that the

programme is having an impact on reducing suicide.”

It is hoped that the scheme will spare many train drivers the experience faced by Don Stewart, whose train struck a man at a station. “ it didn’t hit me for a couple of days. You sit in the house and you’re like; ‘I’m off work, something’s wrong It can’t be what I think it is. It can’t be why I think I’m off work. Regardless of whether you want to say you didn’t kill someone or not, the train you werre driving, you were in control of it. It hit someone.’”

Srewart, who had been a train driver for three years in South Wales, ended up having a year off work and some drivers never return. He says the sense of guilt can be overwhelming; “Drivers in particular ofren feel guilty and responsible . It can bring to the surface such painful emotions and those are images that you’ll never forget.”

Three weeks after Willett’s experience, she received a letter from the boy’;s mother, saying: “Your connection, words and compassion saved his life and indeed ours too. You made this new chapter in his life be possible. Thank you is not a big enough word. Our family look upon you as an angel, our angel in fact.”

Stress does not just affect cricketers and the train industry, it permeates every area of work and every workplace.

Mental health is an issue that line managers are dealing with more and more regularly. The government’s report, “No health without mental health”, says that mental health problems affect one in four people at some point in their life and they are believed to account for over 30% of sickness absence in the NHS.

Generally, managers are trained within their area of expertise, but not often in how to support and manage people. Mental health is often seen as a challenging issue, about which many managers do not feel confident in speaking to their staff.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, stress is the main cause of sickness absence among employees in the UK. Employers need to support the well-being of all staff, whether they have a diagnosed mental-health problem or not.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, the mental-health charity, says recent research by Mind’s Taking Care of Business campaign, found that 90% of people who have time off sick for stress don’t feel they can be honest about why they were off, citing a physical health problem as the reason for their absence.

Employers need to encourage an environment where mental health problems can be disclosed and discussed as openly as any physical health issue.

Farmer says: “We are increasingly talking to people at the top of sporting organisations who recognise the need to support elite players through the highs and lows that come with sport.” The same approach should be taken by all employers who often shirk their duty of care to those in their charge.

In the NHS, line managers have a key role in improving the mental health and wellbeing of NHS staff. Managers need not become experts in in mental health, but an understanding of how to support staff and how to have open conversations about mental health problems will help create a positive culture around mental wellbeing.

The NHS has produced a guide, divided in two sections to help managers support their staff. The first section focuses on creating and supporting a positive culture around mental health and wellbeing in the workplace while the second part looks at how to support staff experiencing mental health problems.

Mental health can fluctuate along a spectrum, in the same way physical health and there may be times ‘0when it is better than  others. Mental health problems should be supported in the same, honest and consistent way that physical health problems are.

Mental health problems cover a range of conditions such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, bipolar disorder (manic depression), schizophrenia, personality disorders and psychosis.

Stress and mental health are closely associated. According to a report by CIPD/MIND, while stress itself is not a medical condition, ‘prolonged exposure to unmanageable stress is linked to psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.’ Managing stress is, therefore, a key part of creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Menatal health problems do not need to stop you from working; with the rightt support and the right job, people with mental health problems perform vital roles in workplaces everywhere.

When in a bout of depression, work may feel like the last thing you want to do, but in fact, work can provide identity, friendship, a steady routine and a salary. Some people thrive in a busy environment and enjoy working to ambitious targets, whereas others see work as a means to an end. Wherever you sit on this spectrum, it is important that the balance between your work and your home life feels right for you.

When people feel under pressure at work, it can lead to stress and anxiety. A short period of stress on its own is not likely to be considered a disabilty under law, but prolonged stress can become more serious and make existing mental health problems worse. It is in the best interests of employers and employees to avoid this situation and create mentally healthy workplaces that are free from discrimination where well-being is a priority.

If you experience mental stress it can be difficult to stay in work and know what support you can expect from your employer, but the following might be of help:

  • You are not alone. Watch real life stories

  • To disclose or not. What should you tell your employer?

  • Legal position. Find out what your rights are.

  • Support is out there. Discover what support your employer might offer.

Nigel Phillips


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