Why investing in mental health in the workplace is good for business

Addressing mental health issues in the workplace can be a win-win for both employees and businesses

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.

Kate Carnell, former CEO of mental health awareness organisation beyondblue, revealed in 2013 that one in three respondents of a national telephone survey the organisation conducted 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,” beyondblue Workplace & Workforce Program Leader Therese Fitzpatrick told intheblack.com.

“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 practising psychiatrist and consultant to mental health organisation The Black Dog Institute, which focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders.

“[They are] places where there’s a high level of demand but little recognition [or] little sense of control over what you do. [Jobs with] high expectations and low control [fit the profile].”

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 [about] 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?”

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 wellbeing.

“Work is important, particularly when it comes to things like depression and anxiety,” says David Burroughs, a psychologist and managing director of Communicorp, a Sydney firm that specialises in workplace mental health and wellbeing training.

“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’,” notes 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.

“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.

“Seventeen per cent of female and 13 per cent of male depression is caused by job stress in the workplace.” Therese Fitzpatrick

“Work has so many positive elements to it, but only if you have the managers that can guide you through that process [and] 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.

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 (the most recent year available) “accountants were the least likely to have undertaken training in dealing with mental illness in the workplace”.

This at a time when one in five Australians are affected by depression at some point in their lives, according to Anxiety Australia.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

“[Make] sure we’re keeping ourselves physically healthy: eating right, sleeping, exercising, not drinking too much. All of these 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.”

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 Heath.

According to Dr Caryl Barnes, the psychiatrist who consults to 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.

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.
“We tend to promote people in managerial and leadership roles based on their technical competence,” adds Communicorp’s Burroughs.

“[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.

“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.”

Get on board

According to SANE Australia’s Jack Heath, one of the quickest ways to effect change around mental health, at a society level, is for business to get on board with mental health programs.

“Business can effect change around this faster, I think, than you can through government legislative programs,” he says.

“But government needs to be ready for legislation if we’re not seeing [those changes].”

Fitzpatrick agrees that some responsibility sits with business.

“I think employers have [to as a] collective look at their own responsibility,” she says.

“If we think of mental health problems the same as we do physical risks in the workplace … OH&S is the responsibility of employers around mental health as much as physical health.”

Heath sees a future for Australia as the world leader in mental health awareness.

“We should give ourselves 10 years or so to get there,” he says, “but I can’t see any justification or rational argument that says Australia should have anything but the best mentally healthy workplaces in the world.

“How dare we not aspire to do that? It’s going to build sustainable businesses, it’s going to increase levels of productivity and it’s going to reduce mental health bills.”

Five steps to better mental health plans

At a Communicorp seminar on mental health in the workplace, psychological health and safety expert Dr Mervyn Gilbert suggested the following five-point action plan:

  1. Define who’s in charge of developing your mental health plan – it should not be left to someone junior in HR, and should have executive support and attention
  2. Put a blueprint together and develop a business case
  3. Plan your initiatives, and ensure you have the resources in place
  4. Do something! Make sure your initiatives are always from a workplace perspective. A “stress-free” day in the park may sound like a good idea, but how does it help long-term?
  5. Celebrate your successes … and keep them coming.

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).

December 2021
December 2021

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