Managing mental health in the workplace

Both employers and managers need education and training on mental illness.

Why managers today need more than just technical skills.

More often than not, mental health issues in the workplace can be circumvented – or at least better supported – by a good manager. Yet many managers are promoted not for their people skills but for their technical abilities.

So what can employers do to make better people managers and, in turn, help their company’s bottom line?

“There needs to be a lot more work done in terms of emotional intelligence, in terms of moving people up into leadership positions,” says SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath.

According to Dr Caryl Barnes, a practising psychiatrist and consultant to mental health organisation The Black Dog Institute, companies should be asking themselves whether they’re promoting people because they’re good at what they do or because they’ve been trained to be good managers.

“The qualities of a manager are quite important when it comes to managing people with mental health issues,” she says.

“We tend to promote people in managerial and leadership roles based on their technical competence,” says David Burroughs, managing director of Communicorp, an Australian firm that specialises in workplace mental health and wellbeing training.

“[Having] technical expertise does not equate to being a good people manager.”

Managers alone can’t be solely responsible for the staff’s mental wellbeing. A degree of responsibility also rests on employers, who should ensure their managers are equipped with the right skills to mitigate mental health risks in the workplace.

“I’ve yet to see a job description that says ‘the job involves the tasks of x, y and z and ensuring the psychological health and safety of your work team’,” Burroughs says.
"There needs to be a lot more work done in terms of moving people up into leadership positions". – Jack Heath, SANE Australia
“Yet we’ve now got all these [workplace legislation] penalties if people fail to do all these sorts [provide a safe workplace, train staff, etc.] of things.”

“I’ve had [managers] come to see me and they’re suffering from depression,” Barnes says. “They talk about their role and they’re carrying huge responsibilities. When we talk about training and support, they haven’t had any.”

According to recent research by SANE Australia, 95 per cent of people claim that employers and managers need education and training on mental illness.

“How do managers tackle the issue of mental illness at work?” Heath recently asked. “It's a major problem throughout Australia, affecting many people.”

The answer, it appears, lies in better educating people who manage staff. “It’s not a supervisor’s role to diagnose a mental illness,” Heath says. “Nor should a supervisor be expected to be a counsellor. They should, however, have the skills to respond to any early signs of mental health problems in the workplace.”

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, agrees.

“Managers have a really crucial role in terms of identifying when people are becoming unwell, managing [them], and helping them get back into the workplace.”

Yet, without the education and skills to identify and mitigate known mental health risks, managers are often left to their own devices.

Helping work to help

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently formalised a partnership with mental health awareness organisation beyondblue to better enable employers to access mental health resources, including beyondblue’s advice services.

According to Carolyn Davis, the Chamber’s manager work health and safety and workers compensation policy, “We’re working with beyondblue [on] resources that enable businesses to look at a [mental health] policy without having to start from scratch. Employer associations can [then] take it to their members.”

The Australian Workers’ Union formed a similar partnership earlier in the year, with AWU National Secretary Paul Howes stating: “There has been a long-standing culture of workers in blue-collar industries hiding [mental health] difficulties and trying to just tough it out”.

Howes adds that he hopes the partnerships will encourage more people to act when they see the warning signs.

Therese Fitzpatrick, workplace and workforce program leader at beyondblue, says: “What makes a good leader is what makes a good leader around mental health. It’s not about being soft all the time, but having clear communication styles, ensuring people know what they can make a decision on and what they can’t, empowering employees appropriately, understanding the personal and understanding how to get the best out of people.”

“It’s about building people’s capabilities so they can thrive themselves [and then in turn] can actually support others,” says Burroughs. “Managers are often the meat in the sandwich. The expectations are really high and it’s tricky for them.”

“A lot of work has been put out that says having a supportive manager is one of the key things in maintaining a healthy workplace,” Barnes says. “So when someone does have a mental health problem, whether it’s anxiety or depression, we know that staying in work is actually really important for recovery.

“It can help people get better quicker, because work has so many positive elements to it. But only if you have managers who can guide you through that process.”

What can businesses do?

Promote the right people
• Consider moving people who aren’t equipped to manage others into technical lead roles that allow them to utilise their technical expertise, while leaving the people management to others
Train managers, and make sure the training covers emotional intelligence
• Develop a mental health policy and action it
• Ensure managers understand their team through face-to-face meetings
• Help staff feel that they have control of their working life.


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).

July 2020
July 2020

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