Mental health challenges cause a lot of sickness absences and are the most common cause of disability, especially among young people. Mental disorders also lead disability pension statistics. Around 5,500 employees of the state, municipalities and the Church in Finland retired on a disability pension in 2020, and mental health causes together with musculoskeletal disorders were the most common causes of pensions. Disability due to mental health problems thus also puts a strain on the public sector, where staff adequacy and access to labour are identified challenges.
The more an individual’s mental health challenges accumulate, the more likely it is that disability will be prolonged. Therefore, problems should be tackled as early as possible. When discussing mental health challenges at social level, it has emerged from the discussions that the treatment of mental health problems is currently too focused on burdensome and expensive treatments. In preventing mental health problems, it is seen as important to enable access to low-threshold services.
Early signals of mental health challenges can be observed in different ways before problems accumulate or lead to sick leave. Early signals from an individual employee’s work ability challenges may appear in the workplace, for example, as a decrease in performance, difficulty in achieving the goals of work or as general changes in employee’s behavior.
Early signals from work ability challenges provide important information to a manager whose early support activities can address the root causes of work ability challenges, thereby preventing the accumulation of mental health challenges and promoting good mental health in the workplace. A quick response can ease the extra workload and prevent, for example, the formation of exhaustion at work.
The manager does not need to be a psychologist or doctor or to solve the problem, but it is important that he or she tackles the challenges, finds solutions to the support measures for work and identify when external assistance is needed. The manager can also support and encourage employees to take up the easily accessible services that many employers currently offer for their employees.
The active contact of the manager with the employee during sick leave is proven to prevent prolonged absences and to promote return to work. The earlier a return to work can be carried out, the lower the risk of permanent disability. In promoting mental health, it is important that the manager is informed about the employee’s situation, supports the start of timely support and, together with the employee, plans to re-arrange the work conditions and return to work from sick leave. Various means of work design and working arrangements can effectively support employees rehabilitation from mental health challenges when returning to work, thereby preventing prolonged disability.
Digital and automated knowledge management tools provide the manager with a systematic solution to support comprehensive work ability and promote mental health. Early support and returning discussion forms that guide the manager can support discussion between the manager and the employee in identifying work ability challenges, such as identifying mental health problems and finding solutions.
The process is efficient when an employee participates in it at an early stage by completing a preliminary questionnaire and consider the current situation. Management receives valuable information at the organization level on the root causes of work capacity challenges raised in discussions, the means of supporting work capacity and their impact on sick leave. This information can be used to improve the targeting of HR support measures in promoting mental health in the workplace, monitoring effectiveness and impact as supporting manager at work.