"It's important to communicate clearly"

Helsana offers employers management training in how best to support employees with mental health conditions. Psychologist Sybille Imbach from Helsana Health Management explains why this is so important.

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Sybille Imbach, Health management specialist, Helsana Health Management, Prevention and health promotion for corporate customers

Ms Imbach, why does Helsana offer employers management training on mental health?

Sybille Imbach: We know that early recognition is very important with mental illnesses. The longer you wait to treat it, the greater the risk that the condition will become chronic. Our concern therefore is that the employer should identify as early as possible – potentially in the workplace itself – if an employee is experiencing problems. The employer should be consistent and set limits. This can have a positive impact on the employee, who is motivated to do something concrete about their condition. In this way, the employer and employee work together to support job retention.

How does the employer benefit?

For the employer, and for Helsana as well, there are important economic factors to consider, as mental illness can cost us a great deal. In terms of daily sickness benefits, mental illness generates the highest costs, exceeding those of musculoskeletal diseases. It takes longer to cure mental illnesses, and the risk of a relapse is greater.

Isn't it a personal matter for the employee if they are suffering from mental problems? What does it have to do with the employer?

Absences aren't just a matter for the employee. The employer has an obligation and social responsibility to ensure employee welfare. They have to pay attention to their employees' health. A manager also represents the economic interests of the company, and that includes maintaining the ability to work.

How does a manager know how to react, and when?

Many managers are out of their depth when they need to communicate with an employee with a mental health condition. This is where our management training comes in. We demonstrate, for example, how to recognise abnormalities, such as frequent conflicts. There are all sorts of personalities: some retreat from problems, others become quick-tempered or aggressive. And there are different stages too, ranging from a bad mood to a serious psychological illness.

So does the employer have to be able to diagnose employees?

No. The employer has nothing to do with diagnoses. But they should try to engage in talks, if they have a bad gut feeling. These can be informal at first, for example a manager telling the employee that they're worried about them. The employer can encourage the employee to seek counselling, if there are more serious problems.

Employees with mental health conditions are sometimes very sensitive – how does an employer adopt the right tone?

You have to communicate your expectations clearly, set limits, and possibly also explain what's acceptable to the company and what isn't. Managers often hesitate to bring up the issue, which unfortunately means that nothing gets done, and the illness can get worse. It can take a very long time before sufferers look for help and they only do so when the psychological stress is extremely high. A manager can speed up this process by addressing worrying behaviour as early as possible.

Is mental illness more common today than in the past?

It's not possible to say, exactly. More diagnoses are made today, but we don't really know what this is connected with. The way of dealing with the issue has certainly changed. Today, people are more inclined to get professional help, partly because those affected don't feel the same stigma as before, and because people are more aware of the problem. This inevitably increases the number of people seeking treatment.

Interview: Daniela Diener