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Looking after employees’ mental health

Employers are becoming increasingly proactive in terms of addressing mental-health issues and encouraging optimum wellbeing among employees

“We see less hidden mental health [issues]now.” Photograph: iStock

“We see less hidden mental health [issues]now.” Photograph: iStock


An enhanced focus on employees’ physical and mental health and wellbeing has been one of the positive developments within the workplace over the past decade. The Healthy Ireland framework reported that the economic cost of mental-health problems is in the range of €11 billion each year, much of which can be attributed to a loss of productivity.

Employers are now increasingly cognisant of the mutual benefits of a happy, healthy workforce, however, and are being proactive in terms of addressing mental-health issues and encouraging optimum wellbeing. This development is a welcome one, says Dr Lynda Sisson, dean of occupational medicine at the Royal College of Physicians Ireland and HSE clinical lead in Workplace Health and Wellbeing.

Sisson has been working in occupational medicine for more than 25 years and has seen the demand for mental-health services and treatment steadily increase among employees. She says one-third of all the consultations her department sees involve a mental-health issue and attributes this to people being more aware of their own mental-health needs, as well as a greater ease in accessing care.

Diagnosis is also more straightforward – even until relatively recently, depression could be misdiagnosed as back pain, for example. “The general acknowledgement that there is a diagnosis and a treatment option for mental health has improved things significantly from a societal point of view. We see less hidden mental health [issues]now, it was probably a missed diagnosis in the past,” says Sisson. “These conditions are all treatable and manageable and can be paralleled with a normal healthy working life.” Acute stress reactions are also common, and these are typically a combination of personal stress and work-related stress, she adds.

Employers are also increasingly willing to make accommodations for people with mental-health diagnoses and managers have become much more aware of the importance of supporting employees in the workplace, says Sisson – for example, the HSE is aware of increased demand in this area, offering learning modules with practical tips and working to signpost managers to the appropriate supports.

“The HSE also has a comprehensive employee assistance programme system, where employees can access four to six sessions face-to-face with a counsellor free of charge and completely confidential,” she explains, adding that employees are now more likely to avail of this service.

Shaken off the stigma

Indeed, psychotherapy has shaken off the stigma and stereotypes associated with it, and practitioners now find themselves in increasing demand, says Dr Mary Rose Sweeney. She is head of the newly-established School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health at Dublin City University. The school now offers three separate qualifications in psychotherapy: a master of science in psychotherapy; a professional diploma in clinical supervision; and a doctorate in psychotherapy. This is an important time for psychotherapy in Ireland, says Sweeney – Coru, the regulator for health and social care professionals, under instruction from the Minister for Health, has recently established a national statutory board with responsibility for the regulation of counselling and psychotherapy nationally.

“Psychotherapy aims to support and enable a person in distress or crisis to find workable answers, better understanding of themselves and to develop skills for sustainable solutions. Working as a psychotherapist is a privilege as you get to support someone who is struggling to meet the demands of their life. The value of it is rising in society the whole time and people are seeing the need for it as mental-health problems are such a big issue right now and are only predicted to grow,” Sweeney explains.

Demand for places is high, she adds. “Our numbers are increasing every year. People are typically already working as counsellors or psychotherapists, but they are coming to improve their educational qualifications in those areas. We get a lot of mature people coming into these programmes, and they may have been working in this area for many years but want to add to their credentials.”

This speaks to not only a demand for psychotherapy services but a desire within the profession to achieve higher qualification, as well as engage in research, says Sweeney.

Other disciplines are now recognising the critical role of mental-health practitioners in recovery, she adds. “GPs are now advocating that recovery is a journey where medication may have a role, but psychotherapy should also have a role, it is a dual approach now. The growth in the numbers going into the profession is timely as the evidence is growing of its value in treatment.”

Dedicated mental-health supports

Many employers have incorporated dedicated mental-health supports, regularly engaging with psychotherapy and counselling services, or making them available via their employee health insurance plan, for example. Alice Vichaita, head of global benefits at Pinterest, the visual discovery app, says there is a strong emphasis on the wellbeing and mental health of their employees.

“With its benefits, Pinterest strives to support the health and wellbeing of its employees and their families,” she explains. “One of the pillars of the company’s ‘Being well at Pinterest’ programme is a focus on ‘mind’. Within this pillar, Pinterest has programmes such as access to free mental-health counselling so that employees can receive support for challenges they may have in their personal or professional lives.”

Pinterest also offers onsite meditation to help employees reset and refocus during busy work days, she adds.

The company is also focused on being proactive rather than reactive; Vichaita says Pinterest offers generous time off and flexible work schedules “so that employees can take time off to re-charge and come back to work re-energised”.

Vichaita acknowledges this strategy is a win-win for the company, ensuring its workforce is productive and engaged. “Pinterest depends on its employees around the world to stay inspired and keep bringing their best ideas forward. It’s hard to do that if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. But more than that, Pinterest genuinely believes that supporting employees’ wellbeing is the right thing to do.”