Management must work with staff to promote good mental health policy

How can managers and employees best work together to promote good mental health at work?

Are managers doing enough to promote effective mental health policy at work?

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, an Australian organisation dedicated to providing mental health services to those in need and reducing social stigma on the subject.

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 BlueThere’s a strong argument that earlier assistance for staff with mental health issues could reduce costs 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.

“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 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.

Challenges in the workplace

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 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”. 

Learn more: BeyondBlue's workplace and workforce program.

“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

“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. So [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 the workplace promote good mental health policy?

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 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.

“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, “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.

What can employees 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 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.

“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.

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.”

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 behaviour 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.

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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