Mental health a huge issue – but not HR’s

by 06 Apr 2009

Dealing with the mental health problems of employees is the responsibility of line managers rather than HR, according to Black Dog Institute executive director Professor Gordon Parker.

Speaking on the topic of “Depression in the workplace” in Sydney on Thursday 2 April, Parker said he had strong views about the role of HR in dealing with mental health.

“It’s inappropriate for HR to be held responsible for the mental health of employees and referring a worker with depressive symptoms to HR is like marching a school student to the principal,” said Parker.

Also speaking at the breakfast, John Brogden, CEO of Manchester Unity, and former Leader of the NSW Opposition, said that employees and their line managers should treat mental health the way they would a physical illness and do something about it as soon as it is recognised.

“People have to take responsibility for their illness,” he said. “They have to get off their backsides. If you had diabetes, for example, and didn’t go to the doctor for treatment you would lead a miserable physical existence. It’s the same with mental health.”

Referring to World Health Organisation (WHO) research, fellow speaker Graeme Cowan said that depression was the most disabling illness in western society today, costing Australian companies $6.3 billion a year in lost productivity.

Cowan, author of Back from the Brink and Back From The Brink Too, said absenteeism alone costs the Australian economy $7 billion a year, and “presenteeism” costs $25 billion.

However, due to the stigma attached to depression, he said, employees often didn’t feel comfortable talking to their colleagues or managers about it.

“A recent survey revealed that 61 per cent of people would feel comfortable talking to their GP about their depression, 50 per cent would feel comfortable talking to their partner but only 9 per cent would feel comfortable discussing it with their work colleagues,” said Cowan.

Therefore when dealing with employees who have depression, he said, line managers should not focus on the problem and should look to the solution.

He said there were five principles crucial to changing a person’s mindset: stepping back – looking at the bigger picture and considering all options to overcome a barrier; experience the now – focusing on the present instead of the past or future; reaching out – getting support from friends and family; valuing your day-to-day life; and being enthused.

Cowan also outlined some classic ways to recognise whether an employee is suffering from depression, such as changes in behaviour, becoming socially withdrawn, absenteeism and a sudden change in the level of productivity.

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