October 10 is Mental Health Day, having been inaugurated in 1992. It hasn’t received as much publicity as some other campaigns over the years, though when we consider how prevalent mental ill-health is today, we might wonder why this campaign is not especially high profile.
Possibly it’s to do with the fact that health has habitually taken second place to safety in our workplace risk assessments, being less obviously tied to causal events, even though overall more working days are lost to ill-health than to injuries.
And of course, ill-health in the workforce is often not directly related to exposure to current hazards in the workplace, much of it being due to historical causes, such as with past exposure to respirable dusts, or as with social or genetic causes. When a significant proportion of our workforce suffers from seasonal infections like flu, or has breathing problems caused by smoking, or experiences ergonomic problems related to obesity, it isn’t necessarily appropriate to expect the employer to start looking for their causes in the workplace, even though there may be mitigating measures that could help in many of these cases. Many chronic health conditions can be helped with intelligent management, even if they can’t be cured. There is also the legal requirement to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate workers with ill-health problems, and likewise an obligation to consider individual risk factors such as those arising from ill-health, in risk assessments, so that the assessment will in fact be ‘suitable and sufficient’.
For mental health issues the situation is even more complicated. The symptoms may be subjective, ignored, or hidden. The diagnosis is also problematic, with a different level of competence required from say, self-diagnosis of tonsilitis. As for causes, the links between cause and effect are not easily fully understood, in the same way that food poisoning can be directly linked to bacterial infection. Very often factors outside the workplace can give rise to the mental health problems exhibited within it, though obviously our workplace culture and workload can be among the most significant factors. An employer might reasonably take the view that not only is the mental health problem in the workplace not his responsibility, there is also little or nothing he or she can do to prevent it. This is not to say it is none of his or her concern.
So it isn’t really surprising that this is delicate ground where employers might fear to tread. Treatment for mental health problems is a job for the professionals, but then so is treatment for broken bones. Few of us would be embarrassed about a broken bone ( though some causes might have greater potential for embarrassment than others ), and few of us would look down our noses at somebody with such an injury. Furthermore, most of us would go out of our way to assist a colleague (or member of the public, for that matter) in this situation. Maybe Mental Health Day has a value in highlighting the different ways so many of us think about mental health, and in getting us to question whether our individual and collective approach is appropriate. They say it’s good to talk, and even if we feel reservations about opening up, or asking others to do so, we can at least start to talk about the whole issue of mental ill-health as a legitimate workplace issue. We need to make sure the risk mitigation measures and reasonable adjustments we make for workers with mental illness are no less than those for physical illness. Up to now this has not always been the case