Blog - The importance of supportive workplaces

men playing table tennis in an office settingRecent research by Prof Kim Burton, an independent occupational health researcher in the UK, has shown that despite businesses reducing serious workplace injuries over the last century, that there are still a significant number of common health problems such as depression, back pain, musculoskeletal pain, and anxiety, which affect people at work. These conditions may come and go over a person’s lifetime. Some people may struggle with these symptoms, others may not, depending on the job demands. If people are struggling, they may visit the GP for help, and if not supported sufficiently in the workplace, may be put off work by the GP. This may be the slippery slope downhill.

It’s really important for the HR manager, support person at work or the GP to identify the work relevant symptoms, which are stopping this person being able to do their job. It’s about this person in this job with these symptoms at this time. These symptoms could be helped with the right support.

Before symptoms arise the individual is a ‘person’ and remains a person at the time of seeking health care. But once they are signed off work, they become a patient. If there is not sufficient help to get back to work and be supported in this return, then they become a beneficiary. Possibly as a result of this approach in the western world, and lack of support in returning to work, Professor Burton’s research indicates that there has been a significant increase in ‘disability’.

Here in New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have the Accident Compensation Corporation, which has a well-developed framework for supporting people following injury to get back to work, with ingoing support until they are fully returned to their previous job or have found another job they are able to do. I suspect this is not as well developed in many any countries.

However, the most commonly identified health problems are depression, anxiety as well as pain from musculoskeletal issues. Depression and anxiety may also occur if there is not enough support with pain issues. We know from the many press releases in New Zealand that there are not enough heath care workers to provide community based mental health support. The Mental Health Foundation provides many useful resources to help improve our mental wellness. How many businesses are aware of these or of the high prevalence of these health issues? Are workers not reporting these problems because they are worried about losing their job?

WorkSafe has increased their emphasis on ‘health’ as well as ‘safety’ with the introduction of the updated Health & Safety at Work Act. It is clear from the research that more support for businesses is needed on supporting employees who may be experiencing mental health issues and that this needs to be a team approach involving the workplace, the supervisor, any health support worker, the GP, as well as the worker themselves, looking at how they can best be supported. Workplaces who have good support systems in place, clear job descriptions and someone who is the first point of contact if a worker feels they are struggling, will be better placed to help that person to remain at work or to return successfully.

Have you got a person in your workplace who is your mental wellness advocate? Think about creating this position, getting everyone in your workplace involved and ask what is important to them. If you need help to get started, go the Mental Health Foundation website and download the Five Ways of Wellbeing information, then ask your people how they can implement these strategies at work. That’s a great start on your path to a truly healthier workplace.