Employers understand that it is their responsibility to provide a safe workplace. Yet unlike physical health safety concerns and hazards such as lifting, tripping, sun exposure and dust reduction, many employers find themselves uncertain about how to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.
The first and most powerful antidote to this uncertainty is becoming informed. For business owners and managers, this includes stepping up and finding answers about common mental health challenges, causes and implications in the workplace.
Let's take a look at some of these factors, and how employers can support their workers' mental wellbeing.
Thankfully, many mental health disorders have become better understood and less stigmatised. While not perfect, attitudes towards mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression have changed and are better understood now, than even a decade ago.
However, even though there is understanding that 1 in every 4 Australians will experience some form of mental health issue during their lives, the cliches about non-physical illnesses still abound. This can include the idea that all depressed people are sad, or that anxious people just need to learn to calm down. Another painfully familiar idea is that people with a mental illness are inherently unstable.
For less-understood conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, ADD and PTSD, the accommodation of these and the provision of necessary reasonable adjustments where required in the workplace and beyond, remains incredibly low. Between 6-8% of all adult mental illnesses will be one of these mentioned, so there is every chance that a person in your workplace is currently living with such a challenge on a daily basis.
One common misconception is that people with such mental health conditions are somehow defective - and can't or won't work. Yet the reality is that many high functioning people being treated for mood disorders and other chronic mental health conditions are living and working effectively around Australia at this moment.
Sadly, Australians who are working despite carrying a mental health issue often feel that they need to work faster/harder/longer/more to prove their worth - and keep their 'problem' quiet. Women, migrants and those with disabilities can certainly understand this kind of historical over-compensation in the workplace. So, when events arise that could exacerbate the situation, employers might only find out once the worst of the damage has already been done. It is vital therefore to build preventative mechanisms, systems and practises for reducing the kinds of workplace behaviours that can both create and exacerbate mental health issues.
The key contributors to workplace mental issues include bullying and harassment, excessive workload, repetitive work routines, and stress. The painful and devastating effects of bullying and harassment are difficult for any worker to face. For employees burdened with a mental health challenge, the impacts can be debilitating.
As mentioned, mental illness can often be carried silently in the workplace, largely due to stigma. If a workload becomes excessive, an employee might not speak up for fear of reprisal. Employers need to put in place systems to monitor these burdens. Repetitive, mundane work can also lead to health and safety issues for workers. One problem that was identified in the Industrial Revolution is that humans need variety! And stress is another 'top 5' cause or primary exacerbator of mental health problems in the workplace: uncertainty, discord and constant change can all build up and cause health concerns.
Absenteeism is an unfortunate but not surprising outcome when people are not supported in the workplace. For those with an existing mental health issue, workplace stressors such as bullying and harassment can cause an exacerbation of the illness. At times like these, attendance can be extremely difficult, if not impossible for an unwell worker to maintain. In a similar way, when mental health issues are not supported in the workplace, reduced productivity is the inevitable consequence. To produce the goods and services at a high and continuous level, workers need to feel well and to feel supported, safe and valued.
It can be somewhat more familiar for employers to think about workplace health and safety only in terms of physical wellbeing. This narrow notion is not correct and a safe workplace also requires understanding and protection of all workers and particularly those with mental health needs. This necessitates taking the time to understand particular mental health conditions more thoroughly, and to take steps towards ensuring a safer and healthier workplace.
Providing safety to employees from direct and indirect mental harm in the workplace involves much more than merely paying lip service to the notion of promoting good mental health and the occasional 'Are you okay'? query. When an employee develops or divulges a mental health issue, the first step is to provide and encourage open communication. Employers can show their interest in learning more about the condition and what might be done to assist the employee at a practical level.
They should make any and all reasonable adjustments required, to support the employee which may include offering or organising flexible working arrangements, if this is something that might assist the worker in question. Anti-bullying policies should be regularly reviewed and strengthened to ensure that the chances of a workplace mental injury occurring are reduced.
An audit to identify a comprehensive suite of risk strategies and processes should be undertaken, to ensure that the workplace is the safest and healthiest that it can be - from any standpoint.
It makes sense for employers to make a commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of staff. As well as producing excellent improvements in absenteeism, reduction in staff turnover, productivity and injury rates, it's also simply the right thing to do. If you'd like more information and education on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace.
WISE Workplace is a multidisciplinary organisation specialising in the investigation of workplace behaviour. We investigate matters of corporate and professional misconduct, resolve conflict through mediation and minimise the impact of inappropriate behaviour through our whistleblower services.
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