Concern about 'over-medicalising' organisational problems
Employers nervous about discussing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are much more open to talking about "resilience", according to the head of an influential thinktank working with leading UK corporations.
Stephen Bevan, managing director of the Work Foundation, said today that those advising employers should "use the language that helps you to get a positive impact in workplaces".
"If you are talking to business leaders about mental health in their workplaces they get very nervous," he told the annual general meeting of the Employee Assistance European Forum. "The term 'resilience' is much more acceptable, something that senior business people like much more than talking about stress, depression and mental illness."
An increased interest by employers in "resilience training" has been viewed with concern by some commentators, and the forum raised a number of difficult questions about the responsibility of employers to create mentally healthy workplaces and the onus on employees to demonstrate resilience in the face of difficult working conditions.
Alex Tambourides, head of mental health charity Mind’s consultancy business Mind Workplace, told Health Insurance last month that he was "slightly sceptical" about employers seeking to deliver resilience training.
"It’s almost allowing them an excuse to just pile on even more pressure," he said.
When asked in a panel discussion today whether employee assistance programmes "medicalise organisational problems”, Brigitee Vaudolon, a clinical psychologist at EAP provider Axis Mundi, said: "There are some workplaces that are pathological."
"You can help people individually to cope but you need to alert the company that this work setting is pathological and creates problems," she said. "You need to avoid more and more people using the service for the same things. This is part of the job for us."
Bevan said that there remained disagreement among experts concerning the best way to help employees to cope with pressure and even the categorisation of stress as a mental health problem, with some describing it as "no more than the medicalisation of unhappiness".
"They argue that it is similar to what happened in the 70s and 80s with back pain where GPs had a tendency to catastrophise low back pain," he said, pointing out that evidence now suggests that bed rest and absence from work makes the condition worse. He suggested that in the same way that GPs now recommend that those suffering from back pain remain active, building resilience could turn employees from passive victims of events around them to people better able to cope with turbulence in their lives.
"Getting organisations to understand how they can build resilience is very important," he said. "If they are going to do more with less [following redundancies] then they need to think about the impact on the workforce and their ability to cope."
He acknowledged however, that purely focusing on building resilience and not exploring organisational issues such as a lack of trust in management would be "a bad mistake".
Occupational health professionals needed to be encouraged to challenge employers about organisational issues that may be creating problems among the workforce, he said.