Taking Action – Tackling Mental Health across Australian Workplaces

You arrive at work, like any standard day. You see people in the lift or car park, you say hello every day to people in your office space or worksite. Out of these people that you see and work alongside 1 in 5 is suffering from a Mental Health issue.

To put this in perspective, if there are 100 people working at your business, twenty of the people you are looking at, right now, have a mental health issue.

These aren’t our statistics but those from Beyond Blue. So, with a health problem this size, and the ever-increasing risk in the workplace – What are Australian Workplaces doing to ensure their people have a safe and supportive environment to function in everyday?

To answer this question, not much.

Mental health and workplace ‘duty of care’ is a relatively recent priority for a lot of workplaces. They lack clarity, education and regulatory guidance as to how to better identify, respond and manage employees that are mentally unwell in the workplace.

Mental Health in Australia remains heavily stigmatised. We are improving but we will still have a long way to go. There is a great deal of judgement and premature performance management that exists and as a result, those that are unwell are losing their jobs, mates and often entering Workers Compensation schemes which carry their own set of stigmas.

Is this the fault if the workplace? No. Australian workplaces need guidance from the Government and appointed state regulators to understand how to prevent and manage mental health in the workplace.

After all, Mental Health is critical to safety and we are obligated to provide a safe workplace. Safe workplaces require a physical and mentally safe work environment. Organisations typically focus on providing a physically safe workplace to prevent physical injuries without recognising they are also required to provide a mentally safe workplace.   Otherwise they will only be 50% safe.

Managers and staff are often reluctant to ask the question – ‘Are you okay?’ out of a fear of the response or saying the wrong thing! In many instances ‘policy’ is designed to legally protect the business by formalising expectations. These expectations have had the negative consequence of creating fear and killing care. People are worried if they do ask, they’ll be accused of harassment, privacy breach and/or find themselves in front of HR.

Then there’s the other side of the spectrum where management is getting too involved. The staff member comes to over-rely on the manager which can lead to managers getting burnt out. The manager becomes the carer.

Achieving balance in the workplace, supporting but supporting safely, is complex. It’s not easy. But it is important that your business has a Mental Health Program.  It must be part of a logical safety system, just like the systems in place for physical safety-related injuries.

So, what does this look like? Where do we start?

When we assess any workplace the first port of call is the CEO and ELT. What is their level of readiness to engage and fund such a program? With the average costs of a mental injury sitting around $300k (Comcare) it really is a discussion that needs to be had.

Afterall, everything starts at the top!

Next, we spend time with management, managers and then team members. This allows us to see how safe people feel in their workplace what are they seeing, feeling and saying? Direct staff consultation is a valid way to gather data in an area that is subjective but also an effective way to start immediately engaging staff in mental health discussions.

Finally, we then share these findings with the ELT. They are never good, but this is the start of the journey that all workplaces find themselves on. Better to start than ignore!

We speak about People feeling unsafe, unsupported and discriminated against. This is confronting but necessary to present to Senior leaders to gauge the level of risk that exists within the workplace.

Let’s look at some helpful steps following CEO and Senior leadership buy-in to start building a Mental Health Program around a topic that is often deemed too ‘subjective’ to manage.

Policy and Procedural development

Like all other safety initiatives in an organisation, a workplace needs a robust Policy which is ‘evidence’ that the organisation is committed to Mental Health protection and management. Mental health cannot just be lip service! Employees need to see it in writing before they will trust and respect the message.

Support this policy with a set of realistic procedures that help employees understand what will happen if they get sick. Is it work related or not work related? Is this the same procedure? What is the role of the workplace to support the employee? What is the role of employee that is unwell? What is on offer? What am in to expect if I am unwell? What is the procedure if there is a mental health critical incident in the workplace such as threats of suicide or an anxiety attack?

People need to know what to do before they will do it.

EAP – it is a tool but not the answer

Many businesses proudly tell us they have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is a tool, but it’s not the entire answer. EAP can’t make the decision about work related adjustments that may offer relief. By over-relying on EAP we’re decreasing managers’ abilities to have robust and personal conversations on mental health and wellness and therefore providing a safe environment for an employee to recover.

Manager Education

Managers need to have the ability to help keep employees mentally and physically safe. This includes assessing their capabilities and training accordingly. While everyone might abide by a safety policy and a code of conduct, are they suitably trained in dealing with mental illness?

These include:

  • What to look for
  • How to have the conversation
  • How to keep unwell people accountable
  • How to track their return to work

People will speak up sooner and receive help earlier if they believe that there could be a positive outcome, instead of stigma and potential job loss. Frontline staff need to be able to speak up and leaders need to ask more. This will see a culture change.

Employee Education

We have established that the reason why an employee will not speak up about a mental health issue is that they fear judgement or job loss, in more causal terms they don’t want to lose their money or their mates! Educating the entire workplace around the organisations stance of mental health management is a great way to break down this stigma and increase ‘true’ reporting.  Intranet blasts, training sessions, induction and ongoing safety management events such as a toolbox-talk or team meetings is a great place to start.

Risk Management Systems

Once people report that they have mental injury, how well do we capture and report on the risk? What system are you using, and does it have features to accurately capture what has occurred? What level of severity was the event? Was there time lost? How was it managed and by whom? Does it track how to mitigate the risk or what was the level of investigation to ensure it does not occur again?

It will be a great day for Workplace Mental Health management when Organisation Boards, Executives and CEO’ can have a safety discussion as clear and confidently as we do with any physical injury in the workplace.

Mental health management is a team effort. For an effective mental health program to become sustainable it involves Senior leaders, Safety teams, Human resources, middle management and risk management.

We all have a part to play to keep our employees safe. With the 1 in 5 unwell people working for you every day, a mental health program is recommended sooner rather than later. It will help Australian workplaces move out of the reactive and into a healthy proactive space that has endless benefits for the individual, workplace culture and production.

Anna Feringa, Mental Health Project Director, The Jonah Group


Further information

Heads Up

Beyond Blue

Jonah Group

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