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Occupational stress - it is time to talk.

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Mental health illness has barely been out of the news in recent months. From the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry talking about childhood bereavement to Rio Ferdinand discussing his own struggles following the death of his wife, it seems that the celebrities that we love to read about have finally found the confidence to share their own problems with us. Why? They are doing this to encourage everyone else to do the same.

Yet when it comes to occupational stress and mental health issues associated with the work place, we tend to remain resolutely British – tight lipped, protective of our privacy and unable to open up to our colleagues and managers about the struggles we may be facing which are either caused by or significantly exacerbated by the work we do and the environment in which it is done. 

Raising the issue of work place stress with your manager can be like putting your head above the parapet expecting to be shot down. Employees may feel that they are making themselves a target for repercussions such as disciplinary action or are causing their card to be marked as a trouble maker and inhibiting future career progression opportunities. Individuals do not want to be thought of as weak or vulnerable by management or their colleagues. They fear sympathy and the general stigma associated with mental health illness. 

The recent economic climate has undoubtedly put pressure on employers to produce more for less.  In all employment sectors, managers need to get more from their team members with the same or less resources.  With an unfavourable employment market in many professions, employees often have little option but to remain in a role where they may feel unduly pressurised to perform or work in environments which detrimentally affect their mental health.  This can lead to resentment, depression and feelings of low self-esteem.

In many cases, the symptoms of stress anxiety and depression are short lived and the problem will pass. Sometimes, however, the difficulties become deep seated and pose a long term risk to health and wellbeing. In those cases an employee may find that raising the issue is a positive benefit to themselves - and others.

By being brave enough to make your employer aware that you are suffering with occupational related stress, you are protecting yourself and your colleagues from further harm.  Your colleagues are likely to be thankful that you have been brave enough to raise the issue with your employer as they may well have been feeling the same but felt unable to talk about it.

Once an employer has been made aware that you feel you are suffering from stress, they are under a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments to assist you and provide help to reduce the risk of you sustaining any further damage to your mental health.  If an employer subsequently fails to make reasonable adjustments for an employee that they know is experiencing occupational stress, they may be deemed to have breached their duty of care to that employee.

For many years mental health problems have been the poor relation to physical illness, both in medical and social terms. We welcome the new environment in which mental health issues can be openly discussed. For many employees that new culture will enable them to obtain the help and support they need to manage their conditions and remain in productive, and rewarding work.

Sadly, for some, struggling to cope and lacking support, the outlook is less positive. In the most serious cases employees may find it difficult to remain in any form of employment. Where employers are found to be responsible for the worsening health problems then the Courts have, in some circumstances, awarded significant levels of compensation.

We hope that the recent media focus on mental health will encourage those who have suffered in silence to reach out to others, including employers, professionals and support groups, for help. There has never been a better time to talk.