Mental illness is now the leading cause of long term sickness absence in Australia, exacting a significant human cost and hitting businesses right in the hip pocket – according to Heads Up, mental illness costs workplaces $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism, and a tidy $146 million in compensation claims every year.
For any organisation that’s powered by its people, it’s time to be proactive about workplace mental health. Here’s how to create a mentally healthy workplace that’s good for employees – and good for business.
What makes a mentally healthy workplace?
There are three key risk factors that contribute to poor workplace mental health, according to a recent publication from the Black Dog Institute: occupational uncertainty, such as lack of job security or poorly managed organisational change; lack of value and respect in the workplace, such as bullying or a lack of organisational justice; and an imbalance in job design, such as a lack of synergy between the demands on an employee and the resources they have available to them to assist with managing their workload.
“The first step of creating a mentally healthy workplace is to be aware of these and to try and reduce these three factors where possible,” says Professor Samuel Harvey, who leads the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at Black Dog Institute.
But reducing those risk factors is just the starting point in contributing to strong mental health for your employees. What else should your business be doing – and who among your staff should take charge?
Leading the way on mental health
Within a workplace, there are three groups of people whose actions have a critical impact on employees’ mental health. Not surprisingly, the senior executive team guides an organisation’s wider approach to mental health.
“The senior people in an organisation have a major role in setting the priorities for an organisation and for the setting the culture as to where employee mental health sits in the hierarchy of concerns,” Harvey says.
Individuals also have a role – equipping employees with resilience and the ability to manage stress in the workplace are key components of mentally healthy staff. But it’s managers who play the most visible role in supporting employees’ mental health: they’re essentially at the coalface of the workplace experience and are therefore best placed to identify and respond to employee mental health concerns.
Is my employee unwell? Signs to look out for
When it comes to being proactive about employees’ mental health, managers should keep an eye out for a change in behaviour. This is often the clearest indicator of a change in mental health status, Harvey says.
“If you have a worker who has previously been performing well who is now not performing, if you have someone who hasn’t normally been absent from work who is now regularly away or coming in late, or if you have someone who’s normally calm and composed but is now getting irritated with co-workers, these are the types of things that should prompt you to check in,” he says.
Further, Harvey stresses that it’s important to remember that anyone can become mentally unwell.
“Mental illness doesn’t discriminate – you may not be able to predict who is likely to become unwell.”
Providing appropriate support
Once you’ve identified that someone is unwell, or becoming unwell, it’s important that managers respond appropriately. While there’s currently no hard and fast rule about what this looks like, preliminary research from Harvey and his team suggests that there are a couple of things that can help:
“One of the key things seems to be for managers and supervisors to have early and regular contact with an individual once they notice the employee is unwell. We know when that happens, the outcomes are much better for everyone involved,” Harvey says.
After that initial conversation, it’s important for managers to be supportive in their capacity as an employer – without taking on the role of a mental health professional.
“They’re not counsellors, and they shouldn’t try and be counsellors,” Harvey cautions.
“Instead, they should be aware of the internal resources that are available – making sure they know the details of the employee assistance provider or the in-house psychology services or whatever else is available and advising their employee to speak to their GP.
“There are also online resources that they can encourage their worker to look at, such as My Compass and Mindspot, which individuals can refer themselves to.”
Playing the long game
If an employee takes time off due to mental health challenges, it’s important to keep them connected to what’s happening at work. Managers should check in regularly with the staff member, reiterate their support and discuss options like a gradual return to work or other adjustments (such as modified duties) that will aid their recovery – these conversations are key to keeping the lines of communication open.
“For the clinicians managing a worker with mental illness, getting then back to work should increasingly be part of their clinical management. The way to make that happen is to enable people to gradually return back as they recover,” Harvey says.
“Most people want to get back to functioning well, and for most that includes being able to undertake meaningful work.”
Getting your staff the skills they need
It’s all well and good to advise managers to sit down with employees, ask them personal questions about their mental health, and provide confident and measured advice about what to do next – but not surprisingly, many managers feel anxious about their ability to do so. That’s where mental health training comes in. However, not just any mental health training will do.
“There’s a lot of stuff rolled out in the name of workplace mental health which really doesn’t have an evidence base behind it,” Harvey says.
“We’d certainly caution against programs that aren’t backed by research.”
Harvey and his team recently rolled out a randomised controlled trial in which half the managers in a NSW Government organisation attended a half-day workplace mental health workshop developed at Black Dog Institute, while the other half were given the standard training available to managers in the gency.
Over a six-month period, the managers who attended the workshop showed measurable changes in behaviour and confidence when dealing with at-risk staff, and their employees had reduced levels of sickness absence.
Those changes also came with significant financial benefit:
“There was about a 10-to-1 return on investment in terms of the cost of training the managed compared to the savings we were seeing for reduced sickness absence,” Harvey says.
Where to from here?
These are just a few of the key considerations in building – and maintaining – a healthy workplace. And, beyond the financial implications of poor workplace mental health, businesses have a responsibility to provide employees with a safe and stable work environment.
“Workplaces have a really important part to play in keeping their workers well,” Harvey says.
“It’s the right thing to do.”