WARNING: This blog contains information on mental health which some readers may find triggering.
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Mental health is a critical component of our overall health and well-being, and recently, it’s becoming prominent that people are considering their mental health more importantly.
The way our brain functions, or fails to function accurately, can have a significant impact on our daily lives, including our productivity, motivation, and relationships.
With the Australian Government declaring a full-time job consists of 38 hours per week – calculating up to about 23% of our full seven-day week – it’s reasonable to state we spend a significant portion of our time working. This makes addressing mental health within a workplace not only significant but essential.
Chair of Australian Medical Association (AMA) Council of General Practice Doctor Richard Kidd agrees with this and said “mental health should absolutely be part of workplace safety, health and safety policy”.
“I have seen many people now, sadly … that have not been strong enough to embark on a WorkCover claim, whose mental health has suffered as a direct result of events that occurred in workplaces,” Dr Kidd said.
“Some of them are around unsustainable workload and some of them are around events that have happened in the workplace that may be expected or unexpected.”
The most common workplace mental health repercussions Dr Kidd has witnessed include “chronic reactive depression with severe anxiety issues and PTSD.”
“The worst outcome, which sadly does happen, is suicide while another outcome is people becoming totally and permanently disabled,” Dr Kidd said.
Identifying Risk Factors at Work
When identifying psychological hazards within a workplace, it’s vital to actively pay attention to things that may contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Employees experiencing mental health struggles may display various signs in the workplace. Some signs may include:
- Changes in behaviour
- Poor job performance
- Increased absence or unpunctuality
- Decreased productivity
- Changes in mood
- Physical symptoms – such as fatigue, headaches, or stomach aches
- Increased conflicts
Risk factors that could contribute to an employee’s declined mental health can include:
Low Job Control
Employees who may have little autonomy or decision-making power within their role.
Employees who feel they lack clear and effective communication.
Employees who are unclear about their job responsibilities or expectations.
Employees who may be subject to bullying or harassment by anyone within their work environment.
Poor Organisational Justice
Employees possibly facing a lack of procedural justice, informational fairness, or interpersonal fairness.
Poor Work-Life Balance
Employees who struggle to balance their work and personal life.
Unbalanced Job Demand/Workload
Employees who have excessive workloads, tight deadlines, a lack of control over their work, or unrealistic deadlines. Also, employees who feel their job demands and workload are not enough.
Employees who feel unsupported by their colleagues, supervisors, or the organisation.
H3: Traumatic Events/Material
Employees exposed to traumatic events and/or material – such as accidents or violence.
Underlying Mental Illnesses
Employees who have been diagnosed with mental health issues, or who already are dealing with long-term mental illness, which may be heightened or triggered in certain situations.
Employees facing bullying and/or harassment within their workplace.
Neglected Disabilities/Health Concerns
Employees with a disability or health issue who may be experiencing discrimination or exclusion. Also, those whose disability or health issues may be overlooked – in any sense – within their work environment.
Lack of Injured Worker Support
Misuse or disregard by an organisation to Workers’ compensation laws.
In Queensland, this includes the Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 and the Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Regulation 2014 which set out the laws for workers' compensation and rehabilitation, and for managing insurance, compensation, rehabilitation, damages, and costs.
Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces
Creating a mentally healthy workplace is essential for promoting overall well-being among employees.
A mentally healthy workplace is characterised by an environment that fosters a culture of inclusion while also encouraging individuals to identify and manage potential risks to their mental health.
By fostering a culture of fairness and inclusion, workplaces can support not only those currently struggling with mental illness, but also prevent the onset of mental health issues among other staff.
A mentally healthy workplace should allow employees to feel:
As an employer, it's essential to ask yourself some critical questions. These questions can include:
- What does it mean to be mentally healthy?
- How is this workplace promoting mental well-being?
- Are there any policies or resources in place to support mental health?
- What processes exist to identify and manage potential risks?
Employers should also evaluate current policies and procedures addressing discrimination, health, and well-being. It is crucial to update these policies if necessary and explore any initiatives focused on mental health which may be more effective.
Some workplaces have trained mental health first aid officers who can offer guidance and support. Depending on an organisation's size and needs, this could be something worth considering.
Why should employers care about the mental health of their employees?
There are multiple reasons employers should care about the mental health of their employees.
Dr Kidd notes it’s “quite often the good employees which suffer the most (with mental illness within their workplace).”
“The good employees tend to be the ones that get overloaded with work and suffer burnout,” Dr Kidd said.
“If you've invested in developing a good employee, you really want to look after them to get the best out of them for a very long time.”
Productivity and Performance
Mental health issues can significantly impact an employee's productivity and performance, which can have a significant impact on the organisation's bottom line. If the mental health conditions of an employee are left untreated, nonattendance, over-working, and reduced quality of work can be expected as possible outcomes.
Addressing mental health in the workplace can help to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, creating a culture of acceptance and support.
Focusing on mental health in the workplace can lead to better employee retention, as employees who feel supported and valued are more likely to remain in their jobs. This also reduces the cost of turnover for the organisation.
Under work health and safety legal framework, employers have an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees – including addressing mental health issues that may arise in the workplace. In Queensland, this includes the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, the Work Health and Safety Regulation 2011, and codes of practice.
Employers have a duty of care to their employees, and this includes ensuring that their mental health needs are met.
Employers who prioritise the mental health of their employees are viewed more positively by the public, customers, and potential employees which can improve the organisation's reputation.
What can workplaces do to support mental health?
Dr Kidd said “there should be policies to address all of the different areas that impact on people's mental health”.
“When someone ends up with a mental health injury or psychological injury, these are typically the injuries that are the longest and most difficult to make a good recovery from,” Dr Kidd said.
“Prevention and early appropriate management are the two best ways of avoiding these problems.”
With that being said, there are various steps workplaces can take to support mental health and create a positive work environment for their employees.
Some of these steps include:
Creating Smarter Work Designs
- Offering flexibility regarding working hours, location, and methods of work to reduce stress and promote work-life balance
- Providing opportunities for individuals and teams to be involved in decision-making processes to increase job satisfaction and enhance overall engagement
- Ensuring the workplace complies with WHS (Work Health and Safety) requirements to minimise the risk of physical and mental injury
Building Better Work Cultures
- Providing training programs for leaders and supervisors, including education on workplace mental health to promote awareness and understanding of mental health issues
- Engaging senior staff in mental health promotion to create a safe and positive work environment
- Developing, implementing, and monitoring a mental health policy, including a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and discrimination
- Managing change in an inclusive manner, with open and realistic communication
- Providing stress management and resilience training to those in high-risk jobs to help employees cope with work-related stress and pressure
- Offering stress management and resilience training
- Creating a work environment that promotes physical activity by providing opportunities for regular exercise and movement throughout the day
- Offering mentoring and coaching to employees to help employees develop their skills and manage their workload effectively
Implementing Early Intervention
- Promoting and facilitating staff to seek help early for any mental health issues they may be experiencing
- Conducting well-being checks once appropriate support and resources are in place to identify and address any potential issues
- Offering Employee Assistance Programs which utilise experienced staff and evidence-based methods to provide employees with access to professional support and resources, such as Work Safe Queensland’s Psychosocial Risk Assessment Tool – a risk management process set out in the Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice 2022 (the Code) – and SafeWork South Australia’s Psychological Health Safety Checklist
- Providing mental health training to all staff so employees can help support each other and recognise signs of distress
- Implementing a peer support program for staff to provide an additional level of support and understanding within the workplace
- Providing training programs for leaders and supervisors on how to support workers during stressful life events and their recovery from mental illness
- Facilitating flexible sick leave arrangements to allow employees to take time off when needed to manage their mental health
- Offering return-to-work programs to assist employees in reintegrating into the workplace after taking time off due to mental illness
- Modifying job duties, schedules, or work arrangements where appropriate to accommodate employees with mental health challenges and facilitate their recovery
- Ensuring those with a history of mental illness (and their carers) are not discriminated against in the workplace and are treated with respect and understanding