5 ways to discuss mental health in the workplace

Creating a culture of acceptance and support plays a big part in bringing mental health issues out of the shadows.

Mental health is too important to ignore, but often hard to discuss. Here are five strategies to get the conversation started in your work organisation.

Statistics around mental health tell an alarming tale. One in five Australians experiences a mental health condition in a given year. One in two will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Every day, nearly eight Australians die by suicide.

“These are startling figures,” says Marcela Slepica, director of clinical services at AccessEAP. “We cannot ignore it. We do have to be talking about it.”

An ideal place to have that conversation is the workplace – especially in the financial and insurance sector, where 33 per cent of people have experienced a mental health condition.

“From a compliance perspective, under workplace health and safety laws employers are responsible for creating not just a physically safe but also a mentally safe workplace. Work-related mental injury is the second most common cause of workers’ compensation claims in Australia,” says Janet Hopkins, general manager of Mindful Employer, an organisation that delivers training to support good mental health in the workplace.

Here are five strategies employers and managers can use to initiate an ongoing discussion about mental health in the workplace

Discussing mental health? Start early

Both experts emphasise the importance of taking a proactive approach to mental health. “Maintaining good mental health should be an ongoing conversation in any business, not something that is only addressed once people are unwell,” says Hopkins.

The benefits of an effective mental wellbeing strategy will be reduced absenteeism and increased productivity, amounting to a considerable economic saving for businesses. One 2017 report found that organisations can get a return of up to A$4 for every A$1 invested in mental health initiatives.

A culture of supporting health

Creating a culture of acceptance and support plays a big part in bringing mental health issues out of the shadows, says Hopkins.

“Building supportive cultures also means that when someone experiences a mental health issue, they are much less likely to feel judged and the issue is less likely to have a detrimental impact on their career. It also means colleagues and managers have confidence to approach someone that may be struggling.”

Hopkins suggests a number of strategies employers can implement to build a culture that supports mental wellbeing:

  • Have clear policies around mental health and safety.
  • Raise awareness of the impact of unmanaged stress in the workplace.
  • Provide training on mental health in the workplace.
  • Provide flexible working arrangements.
  • Encourage healthy habits, such as regular breaks throughout the day, social events, and having lunch away from the desk

Lead by example

Conversations around mental health need to start at the top. Senior management can start the discussion by sharing their own stories of mental health issues that they or someone close to them has experienced.

Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia made headline news when she revealed her battle with postnatal depression following the birth of her daughter in 2002.

In February, Unlockd CEO Matt Berriman announced he was stepping down from his role due to his struggle with bipolar disorder. In an open letter published online he wrote that he hoped that his experience would help increase awareness of mental health. “Hopefully in some incremental way it helps the community better understand that mental illness … doesn’t discriminate,” he wrote.

Examples like these break down stigma around mental illness.

“The more people share their experiences, the more it becomes normalised,” says Slepica. The message, she says, should be, “It exists, let’s not be afraid of it, let’s work with it and support people.”

It’s important that leaders practise what they preach, says Hopkins. “Make sure that if strategies are discussed, like taking regular breaks, that you demonstrate these visibly in front of the staff.”

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Training staff in the workplace

Education is an important precursor to any discussion about mental health in the workplace. “Use your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider to run education and awareness sessions around mental health, so you’re breaking down the stigma and making it OK for people to come forward,” says Slepica.

Train managers in how to have conversations with someone who has a mental illness and how to offer them support, suggests Hopkins.

“Ideally, mental health and safety should receive just as much attention and training as physical health and safety. When talking to businesses we know that building confidence in talking about and dealing with mental health issues encourages and supports help-seeking. And, as with physical illness, seeking help early is important.”

Start talking about mental wellbeing

National days such as R U OK? Day or World Mental Health Day can serve as a springboard to start a discussion about mental wellbeing – but you don’t have to rely on formal campaigns to start the dialogue.

“It can be as simple as checking in with the team after a busy period in the business and having a discussion about how it may have impacted on people,” says Hopkins. “The expectation is not that people disclose that they have a mental illness, but it invites people to reflect on their own health and wellbeing and discuss strategies and avenues of support if they’re struggling.”

There will be times when a one-on-one conversation about mental health with a staff member is required.

In these cases, it’s important to express your concern and refrain from judging. “You might say, ‘I am concerned because I have observed that you’re not yourself’,” suggests Slepica.

Don’t make assumptions, warns Hopkins – everyone’s experience of mental illness may be different. “Be clear around boundaries. It is not your role to diagnose or be a counsellor, but to offer support.”

Read next: How do leaders look after their own mental health?


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