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Mental health challenge

Mental health challenge
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New Zealand

The biggest workplace wellness challenge facing the UK lies in the area of mental health, according to Dame Carol Black, the UK's National Director for Health and Work.

Speaking at the Health and Productivity Management Conference in Auckland in August, Dame Carol said half the enquiries received by a new national occupational health information phone line relate to mental health matters.

"We don't deal with mental health in the workplace at all well. There is tremendous fear and stigma associated with it."
Implementation of the Health and Safety Executive's mental health management standards would do much to improve the situation, she said, but companies have proved reluctant to do so.

"This area is without doubt our biggest challenge. It is absolutely crucial that we train our line managers so they know how to cope with it."

She said keeping people with mental health issues in work - or getting them back to work - requires a link between their psychological therapy and employment. Such treatment is also cost effective, with a 2010 mental health initiative in London finding that when this approach was used every £1 spent on the project generated £2.79 in benefits.

Underpinning all these projects is a secondary agenda to change the way people think about work, and Dame Carol saw some promising signs that this is beginning to happen in the UK.

"The Department of Health is now actually using the word 'work' and has set up a programme with business. The Government has also brought in a framework which calls for desirable outcomes with measurable indicators, and our NHS outcome framework includes the employment of people with long term health conditions or mental illness."

Her work is far from complete, however. She has recently completed an independent review of sickness absences. "I don't know yet if the Government will accept it, but it could save £400 million a year for employers, £300 million a year for the state, and boost our economy by about a billion pounds."

It has, she said, taken a long time to get this far. "We've had some successes, we've made some adjustments, but we still have a long way to go."

She noted that Britain's first survey of national wellbeing, released last month, backs up the strategy's core belief that work is beneficial.

"The most miserable people in the survey were those without jobs, which included everyone from those on benefits to the richest housewives. The most satisfied employees were those working in farming, forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, utility supply and waste disposal."

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Carol Black
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