Workplace Early Intervention

Workplace Early Intervention

Workplace early-intervention programs play a crucial role in preventing mental health problems escalating, and have helped one white-collar worker realise her back and neck pain was exacerbated by anxiety, according to occupational physician Dr Andrea James.

In a podcast released by SANE Australia’s Mindful Employer program, James – Viva Energy’s senior occupational physician – says it’s not uncommon for the early signs of mental ill-health to first become apparent at work, and a workplace early intervention program helps workers recognise the symptoms.

She says that at one organisation she previously worked at, she was asked to assess a female worker from a government department whose role involved standard keyboard and mouse use, and who had been absent for months because of back and neck pain.

“A high level of frustration had developed at her workplace for her prolonged absenteeism for what appeared to be a relatively minor health condition,” James says.

“Unfortunately the worker’s GP, chiropractor [and] osteopath had all missed the signs the worker had a psychiatric condition of generalised anxiety, which was impacting on her back and neck pain and affecting her ability to function at home as well as cope with her return to work.”

According to James, an early-intervention program would have helped the worker identify her psychiatric symptoms and prevented her from becoming “entrenched in the beliefs her pain was solely due to physical problems”.

Early-intervention programs – where line managers encourage workers showing signs of stress or anxiety to seek counselling, for example – “help to reduce the stigma around mental health by providing a culture of acknowledgement and acceptance that mental health conditions are just like physical illness and can be managed in a similar way”, she says.

“It also provides support for people who are living with a chronic mental health condition to remain employed which is shown to be a positive effect in their recovery and on their capacity to function overall effectively.”

James says research has shown returning to work is beneficial to people recovering from mental health conditions, reduces the risk of depression, and is a “significant protective factor” for improving general mental wellbeing.

Being at work provides social contact, brings structure to a person’s day, and supports a worker’s self-confidence and social identity, which is tied up with the sense of wellbeing, and reinforces the importance of maintaining people in the workforce while they recover from mental ill-health.

The aim of early-intervention programs is to recognise the signs of mental illness in its early stages to reduce the risk of escalation. Research shows this has a “positive impact on the pattern of [a person’s] illness over a longer period of time”, James says.

“It’s okay to say to your line manager, your health and safety officer or your colleague that you’re not well due to mental health conditions, you may need some time off work or modifications to help you return to work or remain at work while you receive treatment,” she says.