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Workshops help unions deal with common social problem

With anxiety and depression now accounting for more working days lost than backache, a leading learning and skills organisation is briefing its trade union reps on how to deal with mental health issues.

Unionlearn, part of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), is collaborating with the Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Trust, on a series of three-day courses aimed at teaching reps to handle mental health issues without discrimination, and helping employers to promote good practice.

Illnesses like depression, stress and anxiety are now the main reason for workplace absence, and 420,000 cases are reported every year. It’s estimated that 66 out of every 10,000 workers will suffer from the problem at some time in their career.

“This is a really important area where unions can become more active,” said Dave Eva, unionlearn’s Regional Manager and project leader. “Anxiety and depression now account for more working days lost than backache and people who lose their jobs through mental illness are less likely than any other disabled group to be re-employed,” he added.

“This is due to the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Like most prejudice, this is based on ignorance and fear and leads to discrimination,” he continued. “Given that one in four people have an episode of mental illness in their lifetime, neither the employers nor ourselves can ignore the issue any more.”

Unionlearn plans to have 100 union reps trained, and 25 employers signed up to awareness training by the end of this year. The project also helps trade unions to work with health and social care agencies so that members have access to the relevant organisations.

Bob Birchall, Divisional Director of the Trust’s Interface Division, said: “A project like this brings benefits to both employers and employees. Employers can gain a whole new group of potential employees, can learn about ways to help people already in their workforce who have mental health issues and so can help ensure continuity in their workforce.

“For employees, a more understanding employer can mean a greater sense of balance and a better chance of retaining their job,” he said.

Annabel Hardy

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