Charities go to work as stress levels take a toll

Mental health problems can affect people of all ages. Katie Baldwin looks at a Yorkshire project helping workers get back on their feet.
Emlyn Hagan runs peer support coursesEmlyn Hagan runs peer support courses
Emlyn Hagan runs peer support courses

IT’S an often-quoted figure that one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year.

Research by charity Mind has found that work is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives. So as the economic crisis continues to bite and living standards come under increasing pressure, it is perhaps not surprising that mental health issues linked to work are on the increase.

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One in six people of working age in the UK are considered to have mental health conditions, ranging from stress and anxiety and those with depression, which is relatively common, to those with rarer disorders such as schizophrenia.

With public bodies forced to slash costs and private companies folding or shrinking and unemployment a significant problem, these pressures are filtering down to members of the workforce.

But the prevalence of mental ill-health can often be underestimated by firms and organisations – a report found that half of employers thought that none of their employees would have a mental health condition, while in reality three in 10 workers would be affected at any given time.

“Jobs have become more stressful because of the economic climate,” says Sally Hall, who is jointly leading a new Leeds-based initiative to help employers promote wellbeing at work.

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People are frequently doing a job that perhaps three people did in the past. That’s a factor and that makes this particularly relevant now.”

The new Workplace Wellbeing service, being run by charities Touchstone and Leeds Mind, aims to support employers to minimise stress and assist staff with mental health problems.

It comes as the relationship between work and mental health is closer than ever – but faced with a raft of other pressures, are employers going to be interested in maintaining the mental wellbeing of their workforce?

They should be, according to Sally. She says that once a worker goes off sick, the situation can easily escalate.

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“If you can get someone involved to help them, then the business can save itself a lot of money and retain a valued employee who has performed well in the past and is likely to perform well again in future.”

The massive cost of sickness absences linked to mental health – estimated at around £8.4 billion a year – may be a good incentive for firms to take the issue more seriously.

The new scheme, which brings together and expands previously-available services, is led by people who have experience of mental health issues themselves.

“Touchstone and Leeds Mind are working together to offer a holistic package,” says Sally, partnership co-ordinator, who runs the scheme with Hannah Howe.

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That includes preventative workshops that support employees to stay well through complementary therapies and learning strategies for coping with stress.

Also on offer is mental health awareness training for employers and there is already a one-to-one job retention service for people whose mental health problems may mean they are at risk of being unable to do their role.

A Being Well at Work course developed by WorkPlace Leeds – part of Leeds Mind – is available to people who are finding work difficult as a result of their mental health problems while there are also new workshops for staff experiencing anxiety, stress or depression, led by people who have had mental health issues.

As the scheme is run by charities, many of the services are free.

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“Leeds Mind and Touchstone are charities, so we don’t aim to make a profit. This makes our services cost-effective. Much of what we are currently able to offer can be provided without cost to the employer – especially our Employment Peer Support work,” Sally explains.

“Whatever employers want, we will work to deliver that support.”

The Workplace Wellbeing package was launched at a meeting of the Mindful Employer Network, which has been established to support employers in Leeds to positively promote mental health at work.

It is hoped the scheme will also combat stigma around mental health, which is still keenly felt by people affected, despite some high-profile names speaking out about their own issues – such as former Government spin doctor Alastair Campbell.

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Emlyn Hagan, employment peer coordinator at WorkPlace Leeds, oversees the new courses for employees which are being run as a pilot as part of the programme.

“If people are in situations where they are unsure about their future, it’s going to have an impact on them,” he says. “If you don’t know if you’re going to have a job next year, it affects your way of thinking.”

Emlyn speaks from personal experience with depression having blighted his life for 10 years.

Now he’s dedicating his career to helping others affected by the condition, and other mental health illnesses, using a technique he knows works.

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Emlyn, 43, first became unwell while at university in Leeds in 1996 after a close friend died.

“I ended up suffering from depression for 10 years,” he says. “Throughout that time, anxiety developed as well.”

He took some time out from studying and learned about how the experiences of others could help when he attended a support group.

“It felt very different – it was not a psychologist telling me how to change things, it was other people telling me what they had done to change things,” he says.

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After university he went to work in IT, but he found the corporate environment and job did not suit him, and he ended up having to leave and being unable to work for a year.

During that time he realised he wanted to work for a charity and initially worked for Mencap and now Leeds Mind.

He runs the Workplace Leeds Employment Peer Support Service, with his team now offering courses on subjects including stress, confidence and self-esteem.

Emlyn, from Kirkstall, in Leeds, has come off medication and says his illness is manageable, but he admits it was only “tiny glimmers of hope” and support from good friends which kept him safe.

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“My anxiety has been paralysing at times, stopping me from being able to make any decisions, destroying relationships and pushing friendships to the limit, it made me very unreliable and indecisive,” he says.

“My body image issues have made living a ‘normal’ life nigh on impossible at times. The support of some key peer-led groups, some special friends and a few colleagues have helped me to change my life.

“It’s been incredibly painful at times but it’s all been part of a journey that has lead me to where I am today and I love where that is.”

He hopes that through his own experiences he can help others.

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“Life is still a struggle at times and I still question my judgement too often but it’s filled with people I can turn to and it’s better than it’s ever been.

“That’s what I hope the Employment Peer Support Service can offer to our participants, hope that there is an alternative. If you feel you are struggling to maintain wellbeing at work, you can come to us.”

To find out more, contact Sally on 0113 2302631 or email [email protected] or Hannah on 0113 210 3343 or email [email protected].

• Contact the Employment Peer Support Service on 0113 230 2631 or [email protected].

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