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Returning to work can help with depression

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The modern workplace is often blamed for increased rates of depression and stress. However, new research published in the journal, Occupational Medicine, shows that resuming work can actually aid recovery and help depressed employees.

The Society of Occupational Medicine warned that employers need to be sensitive and consider a range of interventions including changing an employees tasks and reducing hours to help people when they return to work. Line managers also play a key role as an early return to work is aided by line managers keeping in touch at least once every two weeks. 

The study followed more than 500 people who were unable to work with depression from a variety of industries over the course of a year. A return to employment significantly promoted recovery. Importantly, it was the approach and flexibility of their employers that proved vital. 

The study echoes the findings of Dame Carol Black’s Review ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’  which recognised that for most people work is good both for their long-term health and for their family’s well-being. The review found that ill health was costing the country £100 billion a year – £40 billion of which was related to mental health.    

Dr Gordon Parker, President of the Society of Occupational Medicine, said: “Employers are often frightened of contacting an employee whose sick note says ‘depression’ for fear of being accused of harassment, but sympathetic contact with the employee and early help through occupational health can identify the most appropriate support. Occupational health services are ideally placed to advise managers and employees on the best return to work plan and should be involved early in the management of the employee’s absence.” 

In any one year about one in every four employees in the UK will have a mental health problem, and depression is one of the most common. It is not just distressing for the person involved. It makes them less productive at work and is responsible for high rates of sick-leave, accidents and staff turnover. Work often plays one of the largest roles in shaping people’s identity and if employees are absent for some time due to anxiety or depression, this can add to feelings of a lack of self-worth. This study shows that going back to work is often one of the most important factors in speeding up a return to full health. It provides an opportunity to regain a sense of self-esteem and puts routine and stability back into people’s lives. 

A good occupational health team can help senior management develop programmes to educate line managers and the workforce about depression so that the problem is recognised, appropriate early intervention given and employees are helped to return to work. Occupational Health staff will know about the particular stresses and strains of the work environment and have experience of sensitive issues such as workplace confidentiality, job security and the timing of the return to part-time or full-time working. They are also well placed to work closely with family doctors or other specialist health services.   

Depression and anxiety are now the most common reasons for people starting to claim long term sickness benefits. By investing in occupational health services, senior management teams can play a key role in helping people return to work. This will improve the overall performance of the organisation and of individual employees and reduce the costs of sickness absence.




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