I think it’s fair to say that society, in general, has become more aware of the importance of mental health and wellbeing over the last decade.
While advocates would argue there is still some way to go, there is increasing awareness and destigmatisation of mental health issues and disorders and a surge in people seeking help.
It is only natural this has extended into the workplace, where there is now a significant and increasing focus on the importance of managers and organisations supporting employee mental health.
Indeed the concept of a ‘mentally healthy workplace’ has emerged as a critical topic globally, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) releasing a Healthy Workplace framework and model that outlines recommendations for employers and organisations wanting to address the issue.
The WHO document describes a shift in focus from the physical work environment towards other factors such as health practice factors, psychosocial factors and a link to the community – all of which have a significant impact on employee health.
So what defines a healthy workplace? The WHO regional office defines it as one where its members work together to achieve an agreed vision for the health and well-being of workers and community – providing members of the workforce with physical, psychological, social and organisational conditions that protect their health and safety.
Closer to home, the Australian Government’s Department of Health also acknowledges that wellbeing and mental health are important aspects of workplace health.
There are some obvious, intrinsic ethical and social benefits realised from organisations prioritising the value of a mentally healthy workplace.
There is also a clear business case for organisations supporting employee mental health – with a large and increasing body of evidence confirming mental health issues impact organisations directly through increased absenteeism, impacts on productivity and profits, as well as increases in costs to deal with the mental health issues(1).
So how can you and your organisation ensure you are supporting employee mental health in the workplace?
1. Promote Manager Support
Much of the current research into mental health in the workplace has looked at the role of managers in supporting employee mental health.
Managers should not be expected to act as counsellors, but rather as a resource for employees who may be struggling, providing them with the flexibility that they may need at work, and encouraging help-seeking and accessing support.
This is backed by a Black Dog Institute pilot program undertaken in 2017 which provided managers of emergency services personnel with online mental health training.
Managers were taught how to recognise common mental health presentations, how to have supportive conversations about workload and performance, and how to convey support and acknowledgement to employees who were experiencing mental health issues.
In addition to substantial reductions in work-related sickness absence, the training was also associated with a return on investment of $9.98 for each dollar spent on the training.
2. Address Risk Factors
The Black Dog Institute has also developed research into common risk factors in workplaces for mental health. These include:
- occupational uncertainty – e.g. a lack of job security or poorly managed organisational change
- lack of value and respect in the workplace – e.g. bullying or a lack of organisational justice; and
- an imbalance in job design – e.g. issues with workload and resources. (2)
Being aware of these risk factors and being able to address them is likely to result in an improvement in workplace morale.
This might look like addressing issues of workload, providing as much information as possible about job security, and ensuring that an organisation has strong policies around workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination.
This approach requires support from leadership and an ongoing commitment to address the issues that are impacting employee wellbeing.
3. Provide Flexibility and Resources
Flexible working arrangements can be invaluable for employees’ work-life balance. Allowing working from home or remotely and flexi-time can be hugely helpful for employees who are struggling with their mental health.
Making sure that employees are aware of the resources available to them at work, such as Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselling, carers leave and unpaid leave, provides an additional level of support – communicating to the employee that their wellbeing is important to the organisation.
Again, the business case for flexibility is strong – greater flexibility and autonomy for employees means that they will better manage their levels of stress, leading to lower incidences of burnout and sick leave – as well as being more engaged and productive employees.
The Black Dog Institute has an extensive library of online resources to help you or someone you know become mentally healthier, which you can access here.
What kinds of strategies have you used to support employee mental health in the workplace? What has been helpful in terms of educating and training managers in supporting their employees’ mental health? Please feel free to leave your comments below.
1. European Network for Workplace Health Promotion. Newsletter 09/2010/.
2. Harvey SB, Modini M, Joyce S, et al. (2017) Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems Occup Environ Med.