Working towards a mentally healthy workplace
Currently one in six Australian workers will be experiencing mental health issues, with depression and anxiety now the leading cause in long-term workplace absenteeism. While the overall understanding of mental health has improved in recent years, it is apparent that the wider society still fails to understand the importance of mental health.
Employers have a responsibility to recognise, understand and support cases of mental health conditions within the workplace, particularly now that individuals are spending more time than ever at work. It is important to note that an individual’s state of mental health is not static and can be influenced by a range of experiences throughout their life, and their ability and knowledge to deal with the symptoms. Extensive research conducted by Safe Work Australia suggests that while a wide number of workplaces do have a range of measures and policies in place to support the mental health of employees, there is a significant divide between the number of employees and employers who recognise that these policies are in place.
In 2011, Safe Work Australia introduced the Work Health and Safety (WH&S) legislation with the aim to create a nationally consistent framework requiring employers to create a physically and mentally safe workplace for employees. Since then, a change has occurred within corporate Australia and an increasing number of employers have been making a concerted effort to normalise the discussion of mental health support and to remove the stigma that may be preventing workers from seeking assistance. A growing number of resources available from organisations such as The Black Dog Institute, Sane Australia, BeyondBlue and HeadsUp have also become available to employers to help support employees and provide details on effective workplace programs to implement. HeadsUp suggests looking at your overall workplace culture and design to best support the mental health of employees as well as;
Developing positive mental health policies and effectively communicate these through every level of the business
Provide training for staff and managers to help them deal with mental health issues in the workplace
Senior staff should show that they are committed to promoting the mental health of staff and create a supportive culture
Employees should keep open lines of communication and actively identify threats to mental health in the workplace
Ana Figueiredo, the Head of Strategy Enablement for HSBC Holdings PLC understands first-hand through her personal battle with mental health, the importance of looking after employees and their mental health, and the direct correlation of this to business success. She explains, “I stopped flying, taking the train, going shopping, even to the supermarket. My biggest fear was that the entire world would learn that I wasn’t the strong, independent and determined woman that once defined me.” Ana started her recovery through cognitive behavioural therapy and claims that by keeping her work routine moving is what kept her alive, explaining that “Employers need to recognise that the answer is not always to send a sufferer of mental illness home… in fact that may very well be the worst thing”.
As a survivor of mental illness, Ana is determined to share her story to reduce the stigma within her work environment and to encourage people to talk freely about their struggles while seeking help through their employers when necessary. When asked how employers can understand the preventative role that they can play when supporting employees, Ana states that “Employers should provide their people with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to help prevent emotional, mental or physical illnesses. If we know the role that fear and trust play in emotional health, employers need to ask themselves what leadership styles promotes or negatively impacts the mental health of employees”.
Workplace mental illnesses are not prevalent in any one industry and can occur in any size business and at any level of employment. Employers should be striving to make emotional and mental wellness ‘business as usual’ although challenges remain as many businesses vary in their prioritisation of effective policies and approaches to mental health awareness.