What bosses can do about mental health in the workplace

Having a tuned-in boss can go a long way towards improving mental health in the workplace

Senior managers need to speak up about mental health if they want their workers to thrive.

When lawyer Daniela Fazio told her former boss that she was suffering from a mental health condition in 2011, it wasn’t planned. The words, and the tears, just came tumbling out.

“One day, when I was really struggling, my boss asked me what was wrong. I replied, ‘I think I have depression’ then burst out crying,” remembers Fazio.

“My boss gave me a hug, told me it was OK, and to take time off if I needed. I saw my GP and was subsequently diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.”

In the following year, Fazio had regular cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) sessions with a psychologist.

“My appointments were often within work hours. I’d ask my boss if that was OK and she would always say ‘Yes, health comes first’.”

Daniela Fazio

Daniela Fazio

Fazio believes her boss’s kind response may have saved her life.

“I didn’t miss a day’s work during that whole time, despite being severely depressed. If I’d had to stay at home with my own thoughts I’m not sure I’d be here today,” says Fazio, who has since established her own firm in Sydney.

Not everyone is as fortunate in having such a tuned-in boss. In beyondblue’s 2014 State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, based on interviews with 1126 workers, only 56 per cent of respondents believed their most senior leader valued mental health. Just 52 per cent of employees rated their workplace as ‘mentally healthy’, that is, a place that promoted a positive workplace culture while supporting people with mental health conditions.

The crucial role of management

There is a very good reason for senior leaders and managers to take an interest in mental health. When employees believe their CEO values a mentally healthy workplace, levels of absenteeism due to mental health conditions halve, according to beyondblue.

Mental health conditions, which affect almost one in two Australians at some stage of their lives, cost Australian workplaces almost A$11 billion per year. This comprises A$4.7 billion in absenteeism, A$6.1 billion in presenteeism [where employees are at work, but are ill and less productive] and A$146 million in compensation claims.

“Everyone benefits when organisations engage employees, involve them in decision- making, and address workplace stressors,” Nick Arvanitis, Beyond Blue

There’s a strong argument that earlier assistance for staff with mental health issues could reduce this cost to the workplace. In its Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace: Return on Investment Analysis for beyondblue, PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that for every dollar invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace, organisations can expect a positive return of A$2.30. Smaller organisations can expect much more.

Yet organisations need to do more than have a mental health program in place; they need to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Beyondblue’s 2014 survey found that one in three Australians have reservations about working with a person experiencing depression or anxiety, and thought that such a person would not be able to perform adequately at their job.

Nick Arvanitis

Nick Arvanitis

“Some workplaces have it all – the program, the resources and the employee services to support individuals,” says Nick Arvanitis, the head of beyondblue’s Workplace Research and Resources, “but they still have the stigma of mental illness. If that persists, people won’t seek help or use the available resources.”

Patrick Corrigan, professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has dedicated much of his working life to understanding and dismantling the stigma surrounding mental illness.

His research has found that while education is important, the most powerful way to break down stigma is for people to have personal contact with someone who has experienced a mental illness. That’s why beyondblue sends presenters, including Fazio, into workplaces to share their personal experience.

“In workplaces that do a good job of reducing stigma, you also see senior managers and leaders willing to speak up about mental health and illness, including any personal experiences,” says Arvanitis.

“On the other hand, we hear stories where organisations invite our guest speakers, and there is no senior management presence or endorsement at all.

“The challenge for leaders is to not only put good resources and strategies in place, but to be seen to value mental health,” says Arvanitis.

How bosses can help

David Banks, the general manager of operations support at NAB Wealth, champions mental health for his team of 160 people in Sydney and Melbourne. He is very conscious of walking the talk.

“It’s about opening yourself up first, showing people it’s OK to be a bit vulnerable to talk about your life challenges,” says Banks, who has shared with his team his wife’s battle with breast cancer.

“It shows you are human, creates trust and allows other people to reach out and connect.”

Keen to integrate R U OK? Day into his team’s everyday language and culture, Banks focuses on equipping his managers to have effective conversations about mental health when they need to.

According to the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance’s Guide for Business Leaders and Mangers, adjusting an employee’s working hours is one practical way managers can support a worker who is struggling.

“Most importantly, it’s about reminding managers to listen and ask questions,” says Banks.

“I model this with my senior leadership team and it’s amazing how many things can work themselves out. You’d like to work a nine-day fortnight to get the right balance? Easy. We can start that now.” 

Arvanitis agrees that conversations are key to making a positive difference.

“If managers have a basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, and are armed with guidelines on how to approach a conversation – such as talking about it as you would a physical health condition – that can go a long way.”

Without such education, managers can be prone to invalidating workers when they pluck up the courage to speak up, says Eliza Oakley, manager of SANE’s workplace program Mindful Employer.

“Stigma and discrimination can show up in subtle ways. Comments such as ‘Your work is really good, there can’t be anything wrong with you’, or ‘Sure, you can take some time off, but I need you to know I don’t believe in mental illness’, can leave the person confused and trust broken,” she explains.

Mentally healthy workplaces don’t only benefit those who are ill.

“Everyone benefits when organisations engage employees, involve them in decision-making, and address workplace stressors,” says Arvanitis.

Find out more

Heads Up, www.headsup.org.au
Free resources and tools for a mentally healthy workplace

SANE’s Mindful Employer Program, www.mindfulemployer.org
An eLearning and face-to-face workplace mental health training program for businesses in Australia wide

Beyondblue National Workplace Programwww.beyondblue.org.au or call 1300 134 644
Workshops run by beyondblue in your workplace

Read Beyond Blue's report about the state of mental health in the Australian workplace.

Black Dog Institute

Learn more about the Black Dog Institute and the importance of workplace wellbeing

Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers by the Australian Human Rights Commission

7 tactics for a mentally healthy workplace

  1. Worksite physical activity programs
  2. Coaching and mentoring programs 
  3. Mental health first aid and education 
  4. Resilience training 
  5. Cognitive behavior therapy based return-to-work programs 
  6. Wellbeing checks or health screenings 
  7. Encouraging employee involvement.

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace: Return on Investment Analysis 

Reducing the stigma around mental health

Professor Patrick Corrigan from the Illinois Institute of Technology identifies three core areas in reducing stigma: contact, education and protest.

Contact: Very Effective. This involves face-to-face contact with a person experiencing mental illness. Corrigan’s research has found that using an everyday person with whom the audience can identify is more effective than using a high-profile celebrity or sports person. Video-based contact is also effective, especially for young age groups, but not as much as direct contact.

Education: Moderately Effective. Providing factual information – such as mental illness is common, it’s a true medical condition, and many people recover from it – can correct misinformation and promote more positive attitudes.

Protest: Least Effective. This “shame-on-you” approach to stop people having negative thoughts and attitudes towards a particular group can sometimes have a rebound effect, increasing stigma rather than reducing it.

Sources: Strategies for reducing stigma toward persons with mental illness, and interview with Professor Corrigan.

More on mental health in the workplace

While a large portion of his professional life has been spent advocating for the rights of society’s most vulnerable, Patrick McGorry is keen to point out that poor mental health does not discriminate.

Patrick McGorry: Why investing in mental health is good for business

People in business need to consciously maintain their mental wellbeing and the usual commonsense approaches still apply.

Stress management: COVID-19, tax time and the sum of our fears

Making staff wellbeing a priority is a mark of all good organisations, and part of that is regular communication around relevant issues.

Mental health in a roving workforce