Mental health at work
Mental health is something we all have. It is the way we think and feel and our ability to deal with ups and downs. When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives. We can also have periods of distress or mental distress when we, for whatever reason, aren’t coping. It could be something at home or the pressure of work.
Unfortunately, mental health issues are growing. In 2017 depression became the single leading cause of disability globally, outstripping both cancer and heart disease. Mental health disorders are also the leading cause of work disability and estimates put the cost to the global economy at $23 trillion by 2030. The cost of lower economic participation and lost productivity at work for Australia is estimated at $10–$18 billion, according to the Australian Government 2019 Productivity Commission Mental Health draft report.
In Australia we know that 50 per cent of all people will experience at least one episode of mental illness in their lifetime. And in any 12-month period 20 per cent of people will experience a mental illness.
Of people suffering with mental illness, fewer than 50 per cent are receiving appropriate professional support. Often, people experiencing mental distress try to hide their feelings because they are afraid of stigma and of other people’s responses, which means the majority of people with mental illness are struggling in work and life without appropriate help. This impacts their health, relationships at home and at work, reduces productivity and overall hinders people’s ability to lead a fully functioning life.
The workplace is increasingly being cited as a primary source of stress. Almost 50 per cent of Australian employees have left a workplace due to a poor mental health environment, while 60 per cent of employees working in a mentally healthy workplace are more committed to their job, a report by Beyond Blue found.
Burn-out was formally defined and acknowledged by the World Health Organisation in 2019 as a real illness; a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
The Australian Government 2019 Productivity Commission for Mental Health draft report estimates mental health costs Australian workplaces $17 billion every year, with mental illness affecting both absenteeism and general productivity. The presenteeism cost is estimated at $34 billion a year, while the direct cost of paid time off, including sick leave and holiday leave, is estimated at 12.2 per cent of payroll. Contrast these figures with the return on investment (ROI) for wellness for employees: PwC research found that every dollar spent creating a mentally healthy workplace can, on average, generate a return of $2.30.
The Productivity Commission report also states that “business has a responsibility and duty of care to support mental health and safety, not just physical health and safety. Workplaces need to build their capability and capacity.”
As employers, leaders, managers and colleagues, there are a number of areas we need to address to support mental health and ultimately improve mental wellbeing at work. These include workplace mental health education, appropriate crisis supports, psychologically safe teams, and mental health literacy skills for people managers.
Increasing organisational mental health literacy is the core strategy for reducing mental health risk and developing mental wellbeing at work. Mental health literacy is about upskilling staff with the appropriate words and language to share their challenges and concerns. It includes being able to recognise the early signs for potential mental health problems. And most importantly being able to have and hold safe conversations that encourage help-seeking with the appropriate professionals.
R U OK? training across the workplace is a good place to start for encouraging caring conversations. And mental health first aid certificate training across a representative range of staff, positions and sites, provides organisational capability for the early identification of challenges as well as crisis management support.
Mental health education and skills building for people managers is important for creating psychologically safe teams and providing frontline check-in conversations. Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling colleagues about their mental health challenges.
The earlier we recognise something isn’t quite right, the earlier we can check in and connect people to support. And the earlier people get help for mental distress, the better their health outcomes.
Additionally, the Australian challenges with the environmental stressors of bushfires, drought, floods and coronavirus, is increasing the urgency and need for mental health support.
Tips for supporting your staff and suppliers affected by crises when they return to work:
- Ask them, ‘Are you OK?’, and follow with questions that can’t be answered by yes, no, good or fine. Show you genuinely want to know how they are and what their experience is. And check back in regularly.
- Listen and acknowledge their experiences with empathy and without judgement. Every person feels, reacts and communicates differently. And will need different ways, strategies, timings and support.
- Ask them what help they need. Support appropriate flexible working arrangements: for volunteering, for counselling or medical appointments, to care for family members, for legal or financial appointments.
- Bring in a counsellor or psychologist and offer confidential sessions for employees; or connect people with your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if your workplace has one.
- Make the work environment a safe, welcoming and nurturing place: create private and safe spaces where people can go to process overwhelming feelings or talk through their experiences in private. Bring people together for morning coffee and encourage group lunch breaks.
Check out icare’s Social Connections Toolkit for ideas on how to bring people together at work.
Best practice is to reconnect people experiencing mental illness back into work as quickly as possible. Social inclusion and support, meaningful work, and financial security are evidence-based protective factors for people experiencing mental health challenges.
Fleur Heazlewood is an expert in workplace resilience capability building programs, and a mental health first aid instructor.