By Juliette Steen and Pat Carey
With heavy workloads, long hours, insufficient support, job insecurity and bullying found in many Australian workplaces, it’s little wonder that our work affects our mental health.
Each year one in five of us will take time off work because we feel stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. This figure is more than twice as high (46 per cent) if you’re someone who considers your workplace mentally unhealthy.
The thing is many bosses don’t get how big of an issue this is, and nearly half of all senior managers believe none of their workers will experience a mental health problem at work.
University of NSW lecturer and mental health expert Carlo Caponecchia says both employers and employees benefit when workplaces prioritise mental health.
“You’re going to have people who are healthier and happier and more committed to your organisation,” he says.
“There will be reduced absenteeism, increased commitment and job satisfaction.”
Grant Blashki, a GP and beyondblue’s lead clinical advisor, says it makes good business sense for workplaces to strive to be mentally healthy.
“A big report found for every $1 a workplace spends on making their workplace more mentally healthy, in the long term they recouped $2.30 on average,” he says.
Dr Caponecchia acknowledges that, for some employers, changing their approach to workplace mental health can be daunting.
“They think that you have to start again and that’s where they start getting concerned. Because when you start saying, ‘Well, redesign work’, it’s almost like ‘Give up, knock the house down and rebuild’. That’s not what we’re really talking about here.
“What we are talking about is working collaboratively to think about individual jobs, individual tasks, individual teams and how we can slightly change the work that they do.”
Find out what your employees need
Check in with the organisation and staff to assess how your workplace thinks and acts when it comes to mental health. What changes can be made? What are you already doing that works?
It’s also worth understanding the risk factors that can negatively affect and lead to mental ill health. Some of these include:
- Working long hours for long periods of time
- Heavy workloads
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Insufficient support
- Unclear role definitions and measures of success
- Lack of recognition at work
- Toxic workplaces where bullying or discrimination is occurring.
Dr Caponecchia says we need to remember mental health is a spectrum we all exist on.
“We all have mental health that changes over time,” he says. “We don’t all necessarily have a diagnosed condition, but we all have mental health just like we all have [physical] health.”
Keeping this in mind, the mental health of all employees should be considered, not just those who have spoken out or have clearly diagnosed conditions.
Help your staff manage workloads — and be flexible
Helping your staff manage their workload is a pillar of a mentally healthy workplace, explains principal organisational psychologist Rachel Clements.
This means setting up environments where there is supportive leadership and where managers are active in managing workloads and pressures.
“Flexibility is a massive part here — allowing people flexibility is good for people’s wellbeing,” Ms Clements says.
“Maybe that’s working from home once every couple of weeks, or having flexible start and finish times to fit in other lifestyle needs and balance.”
Helping people manage their workload is also about listening to employees and understanding common triggers for stress.
“There are ways we can reduce stress: be cautious with heavy workloads, set realistic deadlines, manage uncertainty,” Dr Blashki says.
“Another risk factor is insufficient support, particularly with new people. If they don’t have mentors or bosses that are willing to support them, that’s a risk factor.”
Prioritising workloads and job planning are opportunities to collaborate with staff, Dr Caponecchia says.
He suggests “giving people a little bit of agency or control or autonomy over how they work, when they work, what they do, how they work in relation to others”.
When you give people a sense of agency, it gives them a greater sense of control over their work life, and this helps keep them aware of their own mental health needs.
Create a (psychologically) safe culture
It helps for managers to be aware of staff wellbeing all the time, not just when people are unwell, Ms Clements says.
“This is all about the quality of the relationships you have with people … Checking in with people’s wellbeing when they’re well, not just when they’re not travelling well,” she says.
“Having open communication, treating people with respect, diversity and inclusion, having opportunities for team connectedness and for relationships, and celebrating wins and achievements — these types of things go into developing a really supportive and constructive workplace culture.”
Prioritise support and communication… every day
Creating a mentally healthy workplace requires more than a resilience training session here and there.
It’s a long-term commitment that involves creating a space where employees feel continually safe and supported, and where mental health is openly spoken about.
“If someone doesn’t feel psychologically safe to come out and talk about their experiences, they’re not going to,” Ms Clements says.
“The organisation can have all these [programs and training], but unless employees feel safe that there won’t be a negative consequence — that they won’t be excluded, treated differently, or lose their job — they won’t feel able to be open.”
If an employee is returning to work after taking time off for mental illness, have a plan in check (such as flexible sick leave and workload modifications) so the employee feels supported.
“If someone has had a mental health issue, getting back to work can sometimes be grounding and comforting,” Dr Blashki says.
“Workplaces aren’t always causing mental health issues; sometimes they can be part of the solution in helping people get back to a normal rhythm.”
It’s also important there is a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and discrimination.
“I’m always surprised as a GP to hear how toxic workplaces with bullying, sexism or racism is left unchecked by the senior people in an organisation,” Dr Blashki says.
“Managers and leaders set the tone of the workplace. Part of that is not tolerating negative behaviour.”
Focus on wellness that works
Regular catch-ups between managers and staff, support and training programs, and return-to-work programs can all go a long way in ensuring mental health is a workplace priority.
It also creates a place where staff can feel more safe and comfortable, Ms Clements explains.
If your workplace needs help implementing these strategies, there are various groups that can help, including:
- Black Dog Institute
- Heads Up
- Mental Health First Aid Australia
- Mental Health at Work
- SANE Australia’s Mindful Employer.
But Dr Caponecchia says these are not the same as workplace perks, which sometimes do the opposite of increasing employee satisfaction.
“People like to think about how large technology companies provide amazing services: games and free food and slippery dips in the foyer,” he says.
“Those kinds of perks have actually been referred to as ‘golden handcuffs’ … They’re really nice but you don’t get to leave.
“So, the expectations that are placed on you [as a result of engaging with these services] might be a little bit unreasonable.”
*This article first appeared on the abc.net.au/everyday website