The business case around creating mentally healthy workplaces is compelling:
- Mental illness is the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia
- Up to $12 billion is lost to Australian businesses each year
- 1 in 6 Australian workers are experiencing mental ill-health in any year
- The average cost for a successful psychological injury claim is now over $250,000
Source: Black Dog Institute
“The good news is companies that improve their workplaces and invest time, resources and money into their employees’ mental wellness are likely to expect a return of $2.30 for every one dollar invested.”
Price Waterhouse Cooper 2014
As well as a financial return, mentally healthy workplaces enjoy increased employee engagement which is great for productivity and the coveted label as an ‘employee of choice’. But…
Your organisation will need to do a lot more than just promote ‘R U OK days’. Whilst there’s no doubt the buzz around such campaigns adds value by raising awareness that seeking and accepting help and looking out for one another is part of a healthy workplace culture, it’s just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. For example, do your employees feel safe approaching their manager for support? Do your managers feel confident and skilled to handle that conversation, and could they actively approach an employee they’re concerned about?
COVID has brought a higher awareness of mental health where the message has been “It’s OK to be not OK”. We have a newer message: “UNMUTE yourself and speak up”. In our workshops and programs, we teach the leaders skills to make this happen, which subsequently reduce business risk factors.
There are no quick fixes; it’s an ongoing journey where your workplaces must address two sides of the coin in a holistic way:
Firstly – Response – knowing how to respond appropriately to employees experiencing mental health challenges and diagnosed illnesses, which also includes supporting recovery.
Secondly – Prevention – preventing and managing common workplace psychological hazards and risks whilst actively promoting factors that sustain mentally healthy workplaces.
There is a wealth of guidance available; the Work Safe Queensland Mentally Healthy Workplace toolkit is a particularly comprehensive and user-friendly guide for addressing these aspects, including legislative requirements.
Why don’t businesses engage fully with Mental Health?
So why then, given all the evidence, legal obligations, and freely available resources are many businesses not going beyond the basics of awareness campaigns or the most basic generic training?
Often there’s a mixture of fear, confusion, overwhelm and desperation to ‘tick the box’ given all the other safety obligations and, of course, the current distractions!
Let’s address one of the biggest fears that can hold an organisation back from even taking that first step:
“raising the topic of mental health will open a ‘can of worms’, our sickness rates will increase as everyone will have an excuse to take time off with stress and mental health issues, we won’t be able to cope!”
That’s a myth because the can of worms is already open. Look at the meaningful data you have, such as sickness, absence and turnover rates, as well as other data that may come from such things as engagement surveys and exit interviews. That will be a more realistic picture of where your organisation is at when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.
Look beyond the numbers too! It’s not uncommon to disguise a mental health issue as a physical illness (the flu, for example) because of the stigma attached to mental health.
Be aware if someone is off sick for any length of time and there’s a lack of any or appropriate contact from your organisation; the employee is likely to be off longer and less likely to make a successful transition back to work. The evidence is quite an eye-opener. If the person is off work for…
- 20 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 70 per cent;
- 45 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 50 per cent;
- 70 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 35 per cent.
Source: Work Safe Institute & Royal Australasian College of Physicians
Has that convinced you that upskilling managers is clearly a priority to enable them to effectively respond to mental health issues that arise?
Do your managers know how to have early, regular and sensitive contact with a team member who is off sick and/or returning to work?
Enabling someone to stay at work whilst experiencing mental health difficulties, potentially with adjustments, is another option too, and not waiting for the official diagnosis if there are quick wins using best practice. For example, a manager being empowered to say yes to an employee adjusting work times.
Managers aren’t expected to be experts; it’s not about in-depth knowledge of a particular condition. Instead, it’s how that condition impacts an employee’s work and how a range of support and advice can be sought (HR, Employee Assistance Program, Occupational Health, unions) so the workplace can promote recovery.
Crucially, leaders and managers need to promote mental health factors and empower all employees to better manage their mental health and look out for others.
Mental Health as a Continuum
We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. Let’s re-wind a moment because so often when we talk about mental health, people think or talk about mental health difficulties and illness. A way to understand mental health is as a continuum, not a fixed state; people move around regularly with all of life’s ups and downs. It’s helpful to talk about optimal wellbeing and functioning at one end whilst at the other end, people are likely to be experiencing severe symptoms. Your employee could be at either end, regardless of whether they have a diagnosis or not.
The Role of Company Culture in Mental Health
If an employee has poor wellbeing, a toxic workplace will discourage help-seeking, add to the stress, worsen symptoms and compound the problem. More on stress shortly, but consider this: for some people, a sense of overwhelm with other vulnerabilities and no support system could lead to thoughts of suicide. We know that unfortunately, sometimes people act on those thoughts to stop the pain and overwhelm, and tragically the outcome can be fatal.
Early intervention is vital, and a mentally healthy workplace will facilitate early help-seeking by educating about the impact of stigma. This will reinforce the messages of campaigns such as ‘R U OK day’, and employees will feel safer to seek support. Also, a ‘first response’ framework for wellbeing conversations, not just for managers but all employees, will enable others to ‘reach in’ with confidence, ensuring opportunities are seized.
- Spotting the signs of stress and mental distress
- Engaging and listen non-judgementally
- Signposting appropriately to reliable support
- Understanding safety and self-care, including concerns around thoughts of suicide
Notice we’re talking about spotting the signs of stress and distress, not diagnosing if someone has clinical depression; leave that to the professionals! Someone might be having a tough time due to a range of factors, and expressing that to you could provide enough relief to take the first step to move forward; there’s real power in knowing that someone cares too.
We mustn’t medicalise life’s tough times (and current times are off the scale for many). Importantly, stress is not a medical diagnosis; it’s part of the human condition. Did you know that chronic stress that isn’t managed can contribute to a range of physical and mental conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and anxiety disorders, and clinical depression?
While workplaces cannot control workers’ personal lives and the stressors encountered, they have a legal obligation to minimise their exposure to work-related factors that can increase the risk of work-related stress. I think we could all name a few, such as constant unrealistic deadlines, being micro-managed, poor workplace relationships including bullying, remote or isolated work. The Mentally Healthy Workplace toolkit we mentioned earlier is packed full of guidance and so is Safe Work Australia
So often, the workplace is seen as part of the problem, but with the proper guidance…
…why not become part of the solution beyond the ‘tick box’ and learn how to build the foundations of a mentally healthy, thriving workplace?!
A thriving, mentally healthy workplace:
- has leadership buy-in and involvement from all parts of the business
- embeds good practices at every stage of the employee lifecycle
Here at HSG we:
- help you understand where training fits into the bigger picture and guide you to go beyond the tick box with a ‘preventative’ as well as a ‘response’ approach.
- offer role-specific training, so leaders, managers and employees understand their roles and responsibilities
Article by Emma Saccomani, HSG Facilitator
Emma Saccomani is a qualified Mental Health First Aid Instructor (Australia and England), Emma is also licenced to deliver the workplace-specific i-act international program for Managing and Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing.
A Learning and Development professional with 25 years of experience delivering training in diverse business settings (including stations, call centres, depot, head office, porta-cabins!). She understands there is no ‘one size fits all’ and delivers a range of sessions, including ‘bite-size’ learning, always considering operational needs.
With experience as a trustee and support group facilitator of a mental health charity in the UK and as a member of several NHS working groups around suicide prevention and ‘post-vention’, she ensures practical tools and real-life experiences are at the heart of her delivery. Here in NSW, she keeps up-to-date with the latest research and local initiatives and contributes to learning through the Mental Health Coordinating Council.