Is your job driving you to the edge?

Mental health in the workplace matters. Here's why.

James Broughton (not his real name), 37, first acknowledged anxiety, a condition he had lived with for many years, when he began working as a travel agent.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not good enough to do this [job]’,” he says. “I built up the image of a travel agent and I didn’t think I could do that.”

At just six weeks into the job, Broughton contemplated resigning. 

“I’ve never quit a job before,” he says. “I really wanted to keep the job but I knew that if I didn’t talk to somebody about [my anxiety] I was going to quit.”

Fortunately, Broughton was comfortable approaching his team leader. “I said to her, ‘I’m finding this really, really difficult’. 

“She said, ‘You have to think about all you’ve learnt in the six weeks you’ve been with us’.” 

She also acknowledged that Broughton was worrying about the small things. “She said, ‘The small things are the things that turn into – in your mind – big things, and that’s why you want to leave. Don’t sweat the small stuff’.” Broughton celebrates his seventh anniversary at the company this year. 

Despite having a supportive team leader, the past seven years have not been easy for Broughton. 

“I get [anxiety] at work all the time,” he says. “I was a manager for a couple of years but it just didn’t work for me … probably because of the anxiety and stuff, I just got stressed out. I wasn’t doing well, the store wasn’t doing well, we were losing money. I thought that because I’m the manager, it starts with me. My stress levels were so bad that I was taking it out on the staff and things like that. I stepped down and became a 2IC, and the same sort of [anxiety issues] happened again. 

“When you’re a manager you lead by example and you’re under the microscope, whether you’re assistant manager or a 3IC. Now I’m just a consultant and, financially and personally, the nine months in this role have been my best [at the company].”
"I knew if I didn’t talk to somebody, I was going to quit". – James Broughton
Most experts agree that employers have good intentions when it comes to caring for staff, but there’s often a lack of understanding as to how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. 

There’s often a lack of understanding on how to deal with mental health issues in the workplace.

There’s often a lack of understanding on how to deal with mental

health issues in the workplace.

CEO Kate Carnell of mental health awareness organisation beyondblue recently said that one in three respondents of a national telephone survey wrongly believed it helpful to keep out of the way of someone who is depressed, while one in four wrongly believed that people with severe depression should pull themselves together. 

“Seventeen per cent of female and 13 per cent  of male depression is caused by job stress in the workplace,” says beyondblue Workplace & Workforce Program Leader Therese Fitzpatrick.

“I think employers are a lot more aware that they need to do something, but they’re not always sure what they need to do.”

“Some interesting work has been done on the types of workplaces that are more likely to generate mental health problems,” notes Dr Caryl Barnes, a psychiatrist working with The Black Dog Institute, an organisation that focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders. 

“[They are] places where there’s a high level of demand but little recognition, little sense of control over what you do. So [jobs with] high expectations and low control.”

In addition, says Barnes, traits such as high levels of perfectionism, or black and white thinking, can “push you well in your career, but [can be] detrimental for mental health and wellbeing” and often mean a greater risk of depression. 

For finance professionals, a need for accuracy often comes with the job. “There’s a lot of pressure on those roles,” concedes Fitzpatrick. 

“There are some things inherent in jobs that we can’t change,” she adds. “There are those natural stresses that will sit within the accountancy profession, like that need for attention to detail.
“The risks if something is done wrong can be quite high. We can’t necessarily change some of those things, but it’s working out what can you change, how can you give a junior accountant more control over their day-to-day work? Or, how can people ensure that they’re doing what they need to do to look after themselves?”

“Good support from your team leader goes a long way,” Broughton says, acknowledging that without the help of his former team leader he would not still be employed with his company, which is prone to high levels of turnover. 

“Our novices drop off every month or two because they don’t get the support they need.”

Perception is everything

For many, it is the perception of their role that leads to workplace-related mental health issues. 

“It’s not so much about the job characteristics,” says Dr Sam Harvey, who leads a program of research on workplace mental health, conducted jointly by the University of NSW and The Black Dog Institute. 

“It’s about the employee’s perception of their job, so anything that an employer can do to help shift the employee’s perception of these things [is good].”

Amanda Green, 42, a professional services worker, has been suffering from depression for most of her life. “When I first acknowledged it, I was terrified,” she says. 

“I think it’s something I’ve always lived with. In a work capacity, I notice it when things get heavy-going, like ridiculous amounts of work.” 

More than 12 years after seeking help, Green has found ways to manage her depression. “I don’t go a day without exercising,” she says.
"Companies need to get support networks in place inside the workplace". – Amanda Green
“If I don’t exercise for a day and I start getting flat, I say, ‘Right, get out there now’. I don’t care what it is — a 10-minute run or something — it always helps to stave it off.”

While Green has found a way to manage her illness, she still believes that employers can do more to support staff. 

“Employers need to look at their whole social structure,” she says. “People are not islands. I think companies need to get support networks in place inside the workplace, and not just as an add-on.” 

And, importantly, Green says, companies need to be sincere about it. If they’re not, she says, it makes people more jaded. 

According to beyondblue’s Fitzpatrick, “being valued is important for all of us”.

“Different people value different things,” Fitzpatrick says. “Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure we show employees that we value them that can make a big difference to the mental health of your employees. You need to be genuine about that.”

Green says that feeling worthless makes it harder to cope with her illness in the workplace. “You feel awful and … when you’re in the workplace and people are saying, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’ you think, ‘I’m worthless, so obviously it’s my problem and not theirs’.  [Having depression is] not something you can share.”

Dr Barnes suggests that getting people together can often lead to a more mentally healthy, and therefore productive, workforce. 

“The things you do to get people together as a team, whether it’s a physical challenge, a walk — all those things are good for your mental health and for working together and understanding each other.” 

“Not everyone’s going to have the time and inclination to get involved in out-of-work activities,” Barnes continues. “But certainly if you make a variety of things available through the workplace – in work time and out of work time – then you’re hopefully going to touch all of your employees.”

While Green is open about her condition, she has not told her employer. 

“What are they going to do about it?” she asks. She admits that opening up to colleagues is a daunting prospect. “It’s scary,” she says. “It’s terrifying and I can’t tell you why.”

However, as Fitzpatrick says, not all individuals need to feel compelled to tell their employers. 

“It’s important to remember that depression is not always going to impact on your work, and if it doesn’t impact on your work then it’s not necessary to share that with your employer,” she says.

But for the other portion of the population that feels the effects of mental health in the workplace, it might be to the employer’s benefit to create a psychologically friendly workplace. 

“It just makes business sense for there to be a culture where people can seek help,” Dr Harvey says.

How can work help?

While some employers are quick to hand out personal time for employees suffering from mental health issues, for many, staying at work is the best thing for their mental well-being. 

“Work is important, particularly when it comes to things like depression and anxiety,” says Communicorp managing director David Burroughs. “We get a sense of self-worth and satisfaction from the work we do.”

“I think the traditional notion was that if somebody put up their hand and said they were unwell, the employer felt they were doing the right thing by saying, ‘Go home and rest, and don’t worry about contacting us until you’re feeling well again’,” says Harvey. 

“Often that was motivated by good intentions, but we know that in a lot of cases that’s not helpful, but even harmful … helping people to remain active and functional and engaged with the workplace is a really good thing and, in many cases, allows people to recover a lot faster.

“Work has so many positive elements to it, but only if you have the managers that can guide you through that process, that know how to support you.” 

It’s also essential that managers offer their employees the support they need, treating each employee on a case-by-case basis and adjusting accordingly. 

In Europe, some countries have developed “fit notes” which, according to Harvey, involves doctors writing partial sick notes to enable people suffering from a mental illness to return to work. “The idea behind this is that the kind of false divide between somebody being sick and not being able to work and being 100 per cent well is broken down,” says Harvey. 

“So rather than saying, ‘This person isn’t able to work for the next three weeks,’ doctors say, ‘This person is suffering from an illness and here are the things I think they could do in the next three weeks, and here are the things they can’t do’.” 

The initiative is still being evaluated but, according to Harvey, early signs suggest it’s helpful.

What can business do?

The answer is: training, training, training. The general consensus among mental health professionals is that education is lacking in many businesses – and for accountants the numbers aren’t favourable. 

According to beyondblue and Beaton Research’s 2011 Business and Professions Study, “Accountants were the least likely to have undertaken training in dealing with mental illness in the workplace”.

This at a time when 3.2 million Australians experience stress or anxiety as a result of their working arrangements.

“All organisations have a responsibility to identify and mitigate known and suspected risk in the workplace,” says Communicorp’s Burroughs. “That’s not just the physical, that’s the psychosocial risks as well.” 

“There needs to be a lot more work-based training around mental health issues and how to respond to them,” says SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath.

“We know that mid-level managers generally care about their workforce and the people they are supervising, but … they say, ‘I’d like to help someone, but I don’t want to make things worse.’ And so in the absence of having any confidence or skills to deal with a particular issue, they step back. 

“So you get a situation where at the very time when engaging with a person could actually help the situation [managers] drop back, performance drops off, they end up often performance managing the person out of the organisation. Then you’ve got all the costs that are involved in terms of recruiting someone new. The thing is that [education] does not require huge expenditures. “

According to Dr Barnes, a psychiatrist at The Black Dog Institute, the average Australian workplace scores very high on avoidance. “We tend to not be that good at even asking ‘how are you doing’ on a casual basis. When it comes to actually talking about how you feel when you’re doing really badly, that probably makes it worse.”

Having a conversation can be one of the best things a manager can do when dealing with a potential mental health issue in the workplace.

“If you notice [someone is] not themselves, or they’re missing deadlines, or there’s something going on, think about how you start a conversation with them,” says Fitzpatrick. 

“It may or may not mean that there is a mental health problem, but if there is stuff going on in people’s lives, if managers have a clearer idea, they can figure out how they’re going to manage these things in the short-term.”

“I’m amazed at the number of times I hear people say they’ve not had any support or training in having difficult conversations or even training how to do performance management, let alone basic reviews,” Barnes says. 

So how do you go about having that difficult conversation? According to Barnes it’s important to keep to the facts as well as carefully plan your approach. 

“It has been shown that if you really want to have a conversation about a difficult topic it’s probably good not to give too much advance warning that you’re going to do that, so maybe 20 minutes or half an hour … if someone has been left [to think about it] too long there’s a lot of stress and anxiety that can build over those conversations.” 

The next step is to make sure you choose a private space to talk. “There are classic examples of people trying to have these conversations in corridors or in a team meeting or a coffee place. It’s just so inappropriate and that’s going to get people defensive and embarrassed.”

Of course, not every manager is going to have the skills to have these conversations. That’s where the training comes in. According to Heath, “[training] is something that can be done relatively easily.”

“We need to see a lot more workplace programs … educating people around mental health issues. One of the most powerful ways to reduce stigma is to have someone with experience of mental illness share their story, ideally face to face.”

SANE Australia, beyondblue, The Black Dog Institute and Communicorp all offer courses for managers to develop their conversational skills, as well as educational programs that can assist business as a whole. 

In addition, industry bodies such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) have formed partnerships with mental health organisations to promote mental health awareness among employers.

“The most important thing is to raise awareness of mental health issues, and to encourage more people to act when they see the warning signs,” said AWU National Secretary Paul Howes.

“The AWU will also be incorporating mental health components into our Delegates’ Training courses, so that Delegates know what to look out for when they are discussing work issues with Union members.”

It is important, says Burroughs, that employers do not restrict their mental health education to anxiety and depression. “You risk ostracising people in the workplace if you omit a whole range of mental health issues that could be affecting an individual,” he says.

Burroughs suggests employers ask themselves the following questions: 

•    Do we have a mental health policy?
•    Do our managers have access to the resources that will help them make reasonable adjustments to the workplace?
•    Do managers understand what’s required in order to manage staff with different types of concerns?

What can individuals do?

Employers are not the only ones who are responsible for workplace mental health. There are measures that individuals can take, says Fitzpatrick. 

“A lot of that is [making] sure we’re keeping ourselves physically healthy: making sure we’re eating right, we’re sleeping, we’re exercising, not drinking too much. All of those things are really positive for our mental health.”

It can also be beneficial to think about what you can do in your daily work life to reduce your pressures. Fitzpatrick suggests thinking about the hours you work, how you can manage the way you undertake your work and making sure you take breaks. 

“Some of those things are the responsibility of the individual and some of it is the responsibility of the organisation,” she says. “Everybody needs to play a role to start to make a difference.”

If you’re experiencing mental health issues, contact: Lifeline on 131 114; beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or SANE Australia on 1800 18 SANE (7263).

October 2021
October 2021

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