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Is your organisation merely ticking the mental health boxes?

By Anna

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Many organisations now have a focus on workplace mental health, however, how do you ensure that your initiatives are meeting their objectives and not just a Band-Aid approach?

As the groundswell of movement focuses our attention on workplace mental health, there is a risk of throwing resources at a problem not knowing if you are achieving meaningful outcomes.

It’s common for workplace wellness programs to be transactional – they simply ‘do stuff’; but, do they ignite and support positive change in your workplaces, changes in attitudes, knowledge and behaviour? How do you ensure that they transform workplace practices and culture?

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have heard of the importance of workplace mental health and wellbeing.

Much of the focus is on mental illness, and there are some good reasons for this:

  • 45% of Australians experience mental illness in their lifetime;
  • Mental health issues in the workplace cost the economy $12.8 billion every year;
  • For every dollar organisations spend on appropriate action (such as training leaders), there is on average a $2.30 return on investment.

As well as the human and economic costs, there are legal requirements for employers to focus on workplace mental health and wellbeing.

Employers are legally obliged to:

  • not discriminate against an employee with mental illness (including at recruitment, during employment and during any exit from the organisation – this may at times include designing and implementing reasonable adjustments);
  • ensure health and safety (this includes creating a psychologically safe workplace, and managing duty of care to all employees and members of the public as relevant);
  • ensure privacy (this includes around disclosure of mental health issues and the implementation of reasonable adjustments);
  • avoid adverse actions.

However, on average, only 43% of managers understand this area.

Current Approach to Employee Mental Health & Wellbeing

Many organisations entire approach to employees’ mental health and wellbeing is to simply provide an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Tick. Some go further and have a range of wellbeing initiatives such as yoga classes, quiet or chill out zones, lunchtime mindfulness and meditation session. Tick.
The area of workplace wellbeing has grown significantly over the last few years with some very innovative strategies and applications. Yet, what is the return?

EAP services can be instrumental in crisis management and support; wellbeing programs can stimulate motivation and encouragement for people to make changes in their wellbeing, which may ultimately increase their capacity to perform optimally in the workplace. However, when these programs are done in isolation, when they are implemented amidst a culture that is already negative and dysfunctional, it may be difficult to gain employees trust to engage with the services in the first place.

Building a Positive Culture

So, how do you build a culture of positive mental health and wellbeing that is more than just transactional?

The first step is to acknowledge that mental health is an important part of general health and as such you will have employees who are affected at times. Understand that not all employees with mental health issues will be impacted in their work functioning. But, if they are, it is important that they feel safe to disclose their issues. This is necessary so that you can work together to meet your obligations to them, and other employees, by providing appropriate support whilst still managing the organisation’s needs.

A positive change that we are seeing is the move from having a Peer Support Program, with designated Peer Support Officers, to having a Culture of Peer Support – where all employees are encouraged to care for each other. Not that those employees are asked to intrude into other’s personal business, but that anyone who observes someone struggling has the skills and confidence to engage with that person appropriately to give support. When done well this can foster and encourage a culture of positive mental health and wellbeing.

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Another positive change we have observed is organisations moving away from a band-aid approach of simply having an EAP as a crisis response service. Many EAPs also have Managers Assist Helplines to aid leaders in better supporting and managing employees. They also encourage employees to not wait until a crisis evolves to connect with their EAP service, but to do so proactively.

Why is creating a mentally healthy workplace important?

Employers must provide a safe and healthy workplace. This includes mental health. Creating a mentally healthy workplace not only benefits the health and wellbeing of the workforce but builds trust and respect between workers. A culture of care enhances an organisation’s reputation as an employer of choice, and improves motivation, engagement and job satisfaction.

Mentally Healthy Workplaces

Mentally healthy workplaces also help organisations to:

  • meet their legal responsibilities to manage safety and health risks and to provide timely and durable return to work systems;
  • decrease disruptions and costs resulting from work-related harm;
  • reduce worker turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism;
  • reduce work-related injuries, illness and lost time;
  • improve productivity.

Investing in mental health and wellbeing at work is consistently demonstrated to generate a positive financial return on investment.


When a mentally healthy workplace is achieved, and workers are protected from harm or injury and other potentially negative impacts, they can also benefit from the typical health benefits of employment, including routine, social contact, remuneration, identity and regular activity.

How do you achieve this a mentally healthy workplace?

Leaders

Leaders must know:

  • roles and responsibilities to respond;
  • functional impacts of common mental health issues in the workplace;
  • how to minimise risks;
  • appropriate conversations;
  • appropriate workplace adjustments.

Values

Having well-articulated values about mental health and wellbeing defines the architecture of positive behaviour. Develop skills in your leaders around recognising and responding early when mental health concerns arise. Finally, provide opportunities for employees to develop their own skills, such as stress management, dealing with difficult behaviours in others, and building their own mental health buoyancy.

When implemented, appropriate and targeted strategies can greatly improve an organisation’s culture of mental health and wellbeing. This helps to foster an environment where employees feel safe to disclose any mental health issues and get the support that they need, as well as the conscious attention to personally improve their own mental health. How effective is your organisations mental health and wellbeing strategy – is it meeting your needs?

By Tasha Broomhall


References
Mental Health Australia & KPMG – Investing to Save Report 2018.
PWC & Beyond Blue – Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment analysis
Achor, S, 2010 https://executiveeducation.wharton.upenn.edu/thought-leadership/wharton-at-work/2014/03/positivity-habits#sthash.ioFfMbxr.dpuf
Source: Worksafe WA


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