Our mental wellbeing has a profound impact on our ability to thrive, both personally and professionally. And with most of us spending a significant portion of our lives at work, it's crucial that we prioritise mental health in the workplace.
The research speaks for itself. Over two in five Australians—8.6 million people—aged 16-85 years had experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life. Of those, one in five (4.2 million people) had a 12-month mental disorder.
These figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics paint a stark picture of mental health in Australia. Despite an increased effort to raise awareness about mental health in the workplace, around 90% of employees still believe employers can do more to make workplaces mentally sound.
But how can employers support their teams’ mental health? Let’s explore.
First, we must understand what mental health is and what it looks like in the workplace.
Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual can realise their potential, cope with everyday stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community. According to the Australian Department of Health, mental health "is about feeling resilient, enjoying life and being able to connect with others.”
However, if not appropriately managed or without sufficient support, individuals can experience poor mental health and live with mental health conditions.
The most common mental health conditions include anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders. In 2020-21, one in six (16.7%) Australians aged 16-85 years had experienced any suicidal thoughts or behaviours in their life.
People can experience ill mental health for a number of reasons. They can be personal (including relationship woes, financial troubles, living situations, etc.) or arise from the workplace itself.
Workplace stressors that may impact mental health include:
Mental health is vital for our overall wellbeing. When a person experiences poor mental health, they can suffer from psychological distress and poorer physical health. Research shows that people living with mental health conditions can experience weight gain, sleep changes, and cardiovascular illnesses.
And these signs and symptoms can be found in the workplace too. Poor mental health can manifest in various ways, such as:
Poorer mental health can have devastating impacts on the workplace—such as the ones listed above—and employers need to be aware of this.
By law, employers must provide a workplace or work environment that is both physically and psychosocially safe.
This means that employers must take steps to prevent harm to employees' mental health and wellbeing, which may arise from work-related factors, such as poor work design or management or an unhealthy work environment.
Mental health can lead to risks and hazards in the workplace, which can cause physical harm. This, in turn, can make the workplace unsafe, harm other employees, and lead to other severe consequences. Psychosocial hazards include:
Employers can meet their obligations to provide a psychosocially safe workplace by implementing strategies, such as providing employees with mental health support, promoting work-life balance, addressing workplace stressors, and creating a workplace culture that is supportive and inclusive.
To combat this, employers must ensure they design the workplace to be as safe as possible—or, at the very least, offer appropriate resources and support to manage the risk of such hazards.
Not to mention employers cannot discriminate against a person based on their mental health status, as outlined by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. Under this act, employers must make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to support an employee experiencing ill mental health so that they can perform more effectively.
Employers cannot ignore the enormous cost poor mental health has on the workplace. The estimated cost of mental ill-health on Australia's economy is up to $220 billion each year.
Such steep costs can occur due to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, soaring turnover rates, and compensation claims. When you consider this, there is evidence that emphasises the need for employers to be more proactive in supporting workplace mental health.
A pervasive myth about mental health implies that it only affects a select few. We’ve established that that isn’t the case.
Mental ill-health can happen to anyone, employers included. A person does not require an official diagnosis or need to meet the criteria for a mental disorder to experience and live with poor mental wellbeing.
Anything can cause a person to face mental ill-health—there is no single factor that contributes to or is more likely to cause mental health conditions. People may face mental health issues for a short time; some may experience them long-term.
Regardless of who experiences poor mental health or for how long, there need to be robust systems in place to provide the necessary support.
There are various things employers can do to promote and nurture positive mental health in the workplace for themselves and their employees.
Despite increasing conversation about mental health, there is still a stigma surrounding it. This is why workplace mental health training can help.
Such training is becoming increasingly important in workplaces across Australia and the world. Effective mental health courses provide employees and employers with the knowledge and skills they need to support mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Employees and employers are more likely to be better able to identify mental health indicators and stressors, learn the value of communication, and determine how they can support themselves and each other.
Employees look to their employers to determine a workplace’s culture. This means employers must model healthy behaviours to encourage employees to seek support.
Part of breaking the stigma on mental health is opening up about lived experiences. Our friends and partners at LIVIN have seen the profound impact speaking openly about mental health issues has on people.
Their goal is to emphasise that “It Ain’t Weak To Speak” and normalise conversations about mental health. In an independent review with Ernst and Young, statistics demonstrated that, after engaging with LIVIN, people felt more comfortable speaking to someone about their mental health concerns.
LIVIN exemplifies how being more candid about our mental health can encourage others to do the same.
Employee Assistance Programs can be a helpful resource for providing mental health support. They offer free and confidential counselling services to employees and their families.
Beyond that, occasionally checking in with employees can go a long way. Creating spaces for employees to have a chat and express themselves is crucial and may even provide employers with feedback on how to offer support.
When employees feel supported, valued, and safe, they are more likely to have job satisfaction and pride in their work. Role clarity is also important, so everyone knows their responsibilities and expectations. When employees are clear on their roles and expectations, they are less likely to experience stress and burnout.
In the age of working from home, flexible working arrangements are increasingly becoming a requirement of employers. Research shows that flexible work hours can improve productivity, attract and retain employees, and improve employee wellbeing.
etrainu recognises that the content in this article may be distressing and triggering to some. etrainu also acknowledges that people with a lived experience of mental ill-health are not defined by their mental disorders.
If you, or anyone you know, has lived experiences of mental ill-health, please seek support from the following:
It's time for employers to recognise the importance of mental wellbeing in the workplace and take action to support the mental health of their employees. They can do so by investing in mental health training, fostering a supportive workplace culture, and offering support to those who need it.
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