26 Jul 2017

Employers told to step up mental health efforts

11:11 am on 26 July 2017

Employers are being encouraged to talk more frankly with staff suffering from mental illness.

The Mental Health Foundation is urging employers to do more to help workers suffering from mental illness.

The Mental Health Foundation is urging employers to do more to help workers suffering from mental illness. Photo: 123RF

The calls follow a survey which suggested about 600,000 people - about a fifth of all workers - had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

Ten years ago, Penny Weston was working as a doctor in Auckland hospital.

In 2008, she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and depression.

She managed the illnesses for the next six years, but in 2015 things took a turn for the worse.

"I had, for the last few years, been hearing voices intermittently. It was that which took me into hospital, and I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder."

After her diagnosis, Dr Weston was told she could no longer work as a doctor - and might not be able to ever again.

So she contacted WorkWise, a non-profit which helps people with mental health issues find work.

WorkWise chief executive Warren Elwin said many people he saw were riddled with insecurities.

"What do I tell my boss? What do I tell my workmates? Can I be discriminated against? How will I manage stress at work, and what will I do if I feel unwell at work?"

Mr Elwin said a stable working environment could in fact be a key remedy in treating mental health problems.

"We know that having good work is good for a person's mental health," he said.

"In fact, employment can be seen as a health intervention, and employment is an effective treatment for mental illness along with medication and counselling."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson agreed and urged employers to do more to help.

Shaun Robinson

Shaun Robinson Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

"It can be having work buddies who're available to be a friend ... it may be having more flexible hours - sometimes people need a period where they can take time out, work from home. Just as more workplaces are trying to be more family-friendly, it's very similar principles."

Mr Robinson said the key was creating a culture in which people felt comfortable talking about what had been, until recently, a relatively taboo topic.

He said the government had its part to play, too.

"This is part of our economy, this is part of our workforce, this is part of businesses ... and if we get proactive about it, and if government supports programmes, if it sets up good legislation around supporting people in the workforce, actually we all benefit from this."

It took a while, but after a few months, Dr Weston landed a role with the Pathways group - helping people in the same position she'd been in.

And she had a few words of advice for employers.

"Look at the person's skills and what they want from the job, and don't let their history of mental illness affect your judgement as to whether they're suitable for the role or not. Because they're far more than just their mental illness."

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