Money Work Is your workplace good for your mental health?
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Is your workplace good for your mental health?

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Every year, one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness. Do the sums: you don’t need a calculator to work out that most workplaces will have at least one person living with a mental illness – even if their employers, managers and colleagues don’t realise it.

We know that employees who are living with a mental illness and who are poorly managed, or work in workplaces that are mentally unhealthy, are more likely to take days off, be less productive while at work and cause other costs to an organisation.

In fact, mentally unhealthy workplaces have been estimated to cost Australian businesses approximately $11 billion per year.

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However, the opposite is true for organisations that properly support their employees at work. It has been shown that people who live or have lived with a mental illness and are properly supported in their workplace are happier, more productive, more committed and more passionate, improving an organisation’s bottom line.

Indeed, it has been proven that costs borne by organisations in building mentally healthy workplaces have an average return on investment (ROI) of 2.3. So it’s money well spent.

So how mentally healthy is your workplace?

A good place to start is the overall culture of the place. Is mental health or staff wellbeing mentioned much by senior staff and HR people?

Organisations that make building a mentally healthy workplace a clearly stated objective, and promote the benefits of it at every opportunity, are most likely to make it happen in reality.

Two of the key questions to consider are:

• Have you been trained or equipped to recognise psychological or mental health issues in your colleagues? Do you know what to look for?

• A lot of us experience low-level stress at times in the workplace – but how do you know when it has moved beyond that into something of genuine concern?

It’s different with every person. Sometimes people go quiet. Others might act up. Some start missing days at work. The important thing is for staff to be trained to recognise the signs and encouraged to do something about it.

What can you do?

You can start with “R U OK?”, but you can’t be expected to be a fully trained counsellor. If you can spot the signs, initiate first steps towards seeking help, encourage people to talk to someone better trained – often an external agency, which helps address concerns about confidentiality and privacy – to have their illness addressed by a specialist.

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Flexibility is another factor. Everyone needs a work-life balance, but someone who is struggling with mental illness needs the option of flexibility most of all. Some may not need it, but just having it offered makes a difference. Others will embrace flexibility and make the arrangement a great success for both parties.

In the end it relies on breaking down stigma. An organisation that embeds mental wellness in its bones, that promotes a supportive environment and encourages an open discussion around mental health issues will be more likely to embrace all its employees and less likely to have internal conflicts around mental health.

You see, employees who are living with a mental illness have a huge range of skills and abilities, just like anyone else. It’s just that their mental health condition can sometimes get in the way of them delivering on those abilities.

Supporting employees properly gives them the very best chance to overcome those barriers to succeed at work.

If you can do this, everybody – the staff member with the mental illness, their colleagues, their managers and the organisation as a whole – will benefit.

Tom Baxter is the CEO of Ostara Australia, a national not-for-profit that works to overcome barriers faced by disadvantaged job seekers for both employers and employees. Learn more about their work here.

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