Absent workers often say they’re physically ill even if they are having mental health issues. Four industry leaders offer their thoughts.
Emma Larkins CMIOSH
Consultant and tutor, The Bradley Group
Although we are moving in a positive direction, there still appears to be greater acceptance of physical illnesses. This could be down to our experience: we understand how the flu or a sickness bug makes us feel, but does everyone understand how mental illness feels?
It isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; illness can affect people differently on different days. This can make it difficult for organisations to understand, manage and accept. This breeds stigma and could affect somebody calling in absent with a mental illness.
This will change in time. Meanwhile, education, awareness and kindness may help organisations towards acceptance and progression.
Amy Goldsbrough CMIOSH
Regional health and safety manager (North West), Unite Students
Depression, among other mental health issues, is starting to be recognised by society as a serious illness, but there’s still a long way to go. If you call in absent from work there’s a worry of being ‘caught’ outside the house. What’s often misunderstood is that going outside can greatly contribute to recovery.
We need to have better conversations to enable leaders to understand the importance of mental wellbeing. Empathy and understanding are skills that need to be developed; they can’t just be switched on. A wellbeing programme is a good start, and there should be a continuous plan to improve it.
John McNamee CMIOSH
Co-founder and principal consultant at Ravensdale Health, Safety & Wellbeing
Poor mental health isn’t as obvious as physical illness. Few are prepared to talk openly about it, and perceived views of employees and employers can fuel the taboo. Employers need to measure output in ways other than attendance. Through flexible working patterns and locations, employees can contribute far more than is expected or demanded. By understanding factors affecting wellbeing, building protective measures in the workplace and reducing risks, employers can improve staff mental wellbeing. Signposting to resources supporting mental health and wellbeing also helps – but all employees must be able to see the benefit.
Samantha Mepham CMIOSH
Partner, health and safety, Rider Levett Bucknall
It is estimated that one in four UK adults suffer from mental illness each year (Mind, 2020), so logically we should get more calls about it. Why don’t we? Self-stigma is a factor. As someone with experience of mental ill health, I recognise there can be inherent shame, which is irrational as most people are supportive. Lack of understanding can mean people aren’t comfortable talking to those with mental illness. Employers must build environments where people are comfortable talking about mental illness. People should also know what to say if, or when, that call comes in.
Huge thanks to our four experts for contributing their valued opinions to Talking Shop over the past 12 months
Mind. (2020) Mental health facts and statistics. (accessed 23 February 2022).