Is your business mentally healthy?

Sep 26, 2017

Think your workplace is mentally healthy? Research shows there can be a significant disconnect between a leader’s and his or her frontline staff’s views when it comes to creating a mentally healthy workplace.

This article originally appeared on Fairfax National Mastheads. Credit: Alexandra Cain/Fairfax Syndication

Recent beyondblue research found that while 71 per cent of leaders say they are committed to creating a mentally healthy workplace, only 37 per cent of employees feel their leaders are committed to creating a mentally healthy workplace.

So there’s an opportunity for leaders to take a more front-foot approach when it comes to creating a workplace where mental health is a priority.

Nick Arvanitis, head of workplace research and resources at beyondblue, says this shows leaders must ensure they’re not making assumptions around how the organisation approaches mental health.

“There are critical success factors every organisation should understand. This includes engaging staff in the process of developing a mental health plan,” he says, adding that staff are best placed to understand key stressors and challenges, and the strategies needed to address them.

“Involve staff through the entire process of identifying priorities, developing the strategy and getting feedback in terms of reviewing how effective the actions have been.”

Arvanitis advises organisations focus on creating an environment that is supportive and encourages people to seek help when they are struggling.

“Some people will never access workplace-based support or have a conversation with their manager, so it’s about making sure there’s external options available,” he says. “But it’s also important to ensure there’s capability and skills within frontline managers and staff members to understand the basic signs and symptoms of mental illness and have a conversation with someone they’re concerned about.”

Preventing workplace mental health issues should also be a priority. Says Arvanitis: “Think about how job stress can be minimised and the protective actions that can be put in place to help offset stressors.”

These include increasing the control staff members have in terms of how they do their work, providing them with flexibility in terms of start and finish times and when they take their breaks.

“It’s also important that staff have input into decision making in the business. We know that even if you’re in quite a stressful environment, if you have a lot of control and autonomy in relation to your work, this can actually offset a lot of those stressors,” Arvanitis advises.

Workplace mental health specialist Dr Jenny Brockis says the starting point is to look at the stats from the HR department.

Look at whether people are signing up for new opportunities in the business and further training or queuing up to leave. Managers should also review stress levels, sick leave and absentee numbers.

“Look at how the team’s performance ratings compare to results from three months ago. Are things ticking along nicely and growing, or is there a downward trend in productivity and output?” Brockis questions.

Then it’s up to managers to check in with staff about their mental health.

“Use open-ended questions that show a genuine interest in people to help to establish trust and rapport. The questions need to be focused on the individual, how they are finding work, enjoying it and exploring if they are facing any particular challenges. Ask whether there is anything that they, as a manager, can do to help,” Brockis advises.

Hold these types of conversations on a regular basis and schedule them in to ensure they take place.

“If someone’s performance appears to be slipping, or if there has been a change in their demeanour, ask if everything is alright in a non-judgmental and supportive way to provide the person with the opportunity to share how they really feel,” she adds.

Establish a safe work environment where speaking out about concerns or worries is normal and accepted. Provide education sessions that talk about what stress can do to someone’s mental health.

“Managers or team leaders need to be aware of the available resources should a staff member indicate they are struggling with their feelings or admit to issues with anxiety and depression,” says Brockis. “Encourage people to look out for each other every day,” she adds.

Work is good for people’s mental health. But job stress, bullying or discrimination at work can prompt an existing mental health condition to worsen, or create a mental health issue. The idea is to remember that and build on the strengths of individuals.

Arvanitis says it is important to create an environment and roles that enable people to develop their career. “It’s about promoting the positives and preventing stress as much as possible,” he says. “In situations where people are struggling with a mental health condition it’s really important to ensure there’s a range internal and external supports available.”

Every workplace is different. But a great mental health culture has a number of factors in common. These include a positive culture, policies to manage stress and mental health risks, recognised support systems for people with mental health conditions and a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination.

The idea is to ensure people from every level within the organisation have the opportunity to contribute to the business’s ongoing approach to ensuring a mentally healthy workplace.

Research has told us that around 90 per cent of employees think mental health is an important issue for businesses, yet only 50 per cent believe their own workplace is mentally healthy. Everyone has a role to play, both in looking after their own mental health and creating a mentally healthy workplace. Creating a healthy workplace isn’t as difficult as you might think. Heads Up provides free, practical information and resources to create mentally healthy workplaces.

Find out more

Strategies for creating a mentally healthy workplace

Healthy workplaces for small businesses

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