Mental health in the workplace: talking more openly about mental problems

Company | Corporate culture | When it comes to health in the workplace, Dr. Anja Berkenfeld is the first point of contact. The specialist for internal medicine and occupational medicine has been working for thyssenkrupp in the field of occupational safety and health protection for 18 years. However, she does not only encounter running noses and cuts – mental illnesses are also becoming an increasing challenge for her team.

We talked to Dr. Berkenfeld about the digital work environment, reasons for psychologically justified sick leave, and thyssenkrupp’s offers promoting the mental health of all colleagues.

Dr. Berkenfeld, what are the biggest changes in the workplace that you, as an occupational physician, have seen in the past ten years?

One of the great stories is certainly digitalization. Today, we have to think and work more and more flexibly, adapt to new challenges every day, learn for the rest of our lives. Those who enter the workforce today have learned all this early and know how to deal with it better – but for colleagues who have not grown up with the digital world, this transition can be a big challenge.

How have these changes affected the working environment at thyssenkrupp?

All in all, we are moving away from physical and toward mental work – this is a crucial aspect of digitalization. Let’s take a rolling mill as an example: In the past, the proportion of heavy physical labor was much higher here. Today, there are robots and machines that have taken over parts of this analog work, but require complex, extremely demanding digital programming and monitoring. Ultimately, these are completely new job profiles, even though the workplace itself is the same.

According to the German federal government, sick leave due to mental illness and behavioral disorders has more than doubled since 2007. How do you interpret this figure?

That’s true. In particular, the number of days lost due to mental illness is considerable. In the case of a mental illness, you are usually absent for longer than in the case of a simple cold. Thus, even in a few cases, many lost days come together.

There are certainly several reasons for the increase. I think that a social problem is slowly being overcome, that of mental illness as a taboo subject. Just ten or fifteen years ago, depression was not usually treated by the company doctor or even the supervisor, but by visiting the family doctor, and, in case of doubt, using another illness as an excuse. Today, mental illnesses have become more socially acceptable – especially due to public discussions and prominent “outings” on the subject of burnout. Today, we talk more openly about mental problems. And I believe that this development has contributed to an increase in the number of recorded cases of mental illness. The new forms of work and modern everyday life themselves certainly also play an important role. Overall, the world today is more fast-paced than it was ten years ago and offers a multitude of creative possibilities, which can sometimes be too much to cope with.

Nevertheless, the indication at this point is that musculoskeletal disorders and respiratory diseases are still the most common diagnoses.

Do you also see benefits from the changes through digitalization and “new work”?

Anything that brings disadvantages also creates opportunities. Completely new job profiles are currently being created that nobody thought of a few years ago. In addition, digital communication can also relieve employees because time-consuming business trips are often no longer necessary and global projects can be coordinated much more easily. I therefore see Web conferences and video meetings as a good thing. And if the job is worth it, digitalization also opens up more opportunities to combine leisure and career – so much is possible today.

But you always have to be able and willing to do all that. The decisive factor is how I, as an individual, react to changes in the world environment. And everyone is different.

The employees at thyssenkrupp who deal with the new job profiles on a daily basis.

The employees at thyssenkrupp who deal with the new job profiles on a daily basis

What measures and projects does your team take to keep thyssenkrupp employees mentally fit?

At thyssenkrupp, we recognized a crucial problem early on: If, for example, I am diagnosing depression as a company doctor today, it is usually extremely difficult for the patient to find a suitable place with a suitable therapist promptly. This can take three to six months, but the problems are often acute.

That’s why we’ve been offering our employees a nationwide Employee Assistance Program for about five years: In the event of problems, each colleague can contact an external team of experts that can be reached by telephone around the clock and assesses how urgent the problem is. In acute cases, they arrange an appointment with a suitable therapist within three to five days. So far, this deadline has always been met, and the offer works really well. However, this does not mean that everyone needs a therapist directly. The experts also help on the phone with various challenges in everyday life, such as problems with raising children or a conflict with the boss.

In addition, thyssenkrupp employees can take advantage of many different courses such as yoga, Pilates, and more. The academy offers a comprehensive range of seminars, such as mindfulness.

thyssenkrupp offers employees various courses to help them stay healthy and mentally fit

thyssenkrupp offers employees various courses to help them stay healthy and mentally fit

How do you prevent psychological stress in the workplace to arise in the first place?

The Occupational Health and Safety Act stipulates that every activity must be analyzed for its risk. When working on a machine, we ask ourselves how loud the machine may be or whether it can injure people. The same assessment applies to the psyche. It is officially called the “risk assessment of mental stress.” At thyssenkrupp we assess mental stress along the four parameters of work content, work organization, social relationships, and work environment. They form the basis for assessing whether a workplace has the potential to endanger employees psychologically.

There are working conditions considered to promote health, such as a functioning flow of information, sufficient room for maneuver, feedback, or good cooperation with colleagues. However, there are also conditions that lead to chronic stress or exhaustion over a longer period of time. If overtime has to be worked constantly, or if there is always trouble in the team, this can cause illness in the long run, especially when several hazards come together. Here we take a close look within the framework of the assessment at how these many aspects are designed in the areas. Based on this, we have derived many different activities in recent years to make our workplaces healthier.

Can you give us concrete examples?

Concrete measures are usually very activity- or team-specific. Problems and their causes range from A to Z and the catalog of measures is just as colorful. Often a lot could be solved with simple measures. For example, an information board was installed in a department because information that was necessary for the work was constantly missing.

In another team, tasks were redistributed so that some colleagues were not always on business trips, others were able to perform attractive outdoor activities and not just sit in the office. The path to more mental health at the workplace is often very simple and intuitive. It was always more difficult when conflicts arose within the team. Many moderated discussions were held here in order to work on the causes and to agree on a better way of dealing with each other in the future.

What is the employer’s responsibility with regard to mental health?

The employer has a responsibility to ensure that workplaces are healthy and safe. In order to live up to this claim, risk assessments are carried out and targeted measures derived. However, we also know that each of us is a holistic person, each of us has a professional and a private life. This means that the employer is not always fully responsible for the mental illnesses of its employees. Nevertheless, we at thyssenkrupp want to enable our employees to lead healthy lives and give them opportunities to strengthen their resilience through stress management seminars or relaxation courses, for example. We also motivate them to get help in situations where nothing works.

What can colleagues do for their own mental health – and what would be the right approach if they suffer from mental stress at work?

My belief is that if you notice that something is wrong in your workplace, you should talk to your manager first. If the manager himself is the problem, you can contact his superior, the works council, or the company doctor. If you prefer to remain completely anonymous, the EAP hotline can help. Last but not least, it always makes sense to ask yourself what you can do to improve the situation. In the end, however, it always depends on the individual case.

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