A decade ago, the phrase “mental safety” wasn’t widely used in the workplace. In those days, most safety conversations were about donning a hard hat and steel-capped boots or clearing up a trip hazard.
But today, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are on the radar as the serious workplace issues they are. And it’s not just because employers now understand that a healthy workplace not only protects workers from psychological harm—there’s also a good chance it will enhance productivity and overall workplace safety.
In Australia, mental safety has arguably overtaken physical safety as a key workplace issue. A 2014 report for beyondblue, a non-profit organisation that promotes good mental health, found that 91 per cent of workers surveyed believe mental health in the workplace is important while 88 per cent believe physical safety is important.
More importantly, the gap between the importance of mental health in the workplace and the workplace’s performance on this issue was 39 per cent, compared with just 12 per cent between physical safety and performance.
Now, consider that untreated mental health conditions are estimated to cost Australian business almost $11 billion a year, and the model Work Health and Safety Act implemented in all jurisdictions (apart from Victoria and Western Australia) states that employers “have a duty to protect workers from psychological risks as well as physical risks”, and it’s clear mental safety is firmly on the workplace agenda.
What are the signs of mental illness in workers?
Spotting the symptoms of a mental condition can be difficult, which is why many people don’t feel confident broaching the subject. Yet as estimates reveal about 20 per cent of people in Australia are affected by some form of mental illness every year, the issue can no longer be ignored.
Aimee Gayed is a member of the workplace mental health research team at the Black Dog Institute, a non-profit organisation for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders. She says increased awareness is all about encouraging more discussions at work.
“Understandably, most people are uncertain of recognising signs of depression or feel it’s not their place to say anything,” Gayed says.
“Thankfully, an increase in mental health awareness training in workplaces is helping managers and co-workers feel more confident in identifying mental health issues among workers.”
Signs of mental illness can be subtle or glaring, depending on the condition, Gayed says. “When a co-worker is depressed, they can sometimes show signs like low, empty, flat or sad moods and sometimes they can be irritable or even just have difficulty meeting deadlines, which may be out of character for them,” she says.
“Other ways that co-workers can show signs of depression include decreased interest or pleasure in certain activities, significant weight changes without any dietary changes or even tiredness that comes from difficulty sleeping.
“Depending upon your relationship with your co-worker, they may also express feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or even verbalise recurrent thoughts of death.”
Lead the way
Mental illness has long been hidden, considered to be a private matter best dealt with by family or close friends. Today, the wider Australian community is becoming more aware of its responsibility to show compassion and understanding for those who are experiencing mental illness. This is underlined by groups such as suicide prevention charity R U OK?, which provides advice on how employers and staff can start conversations with people about whom they are concerned.
With 23 per cent of all serious mental health disorder claims arising from the pressures of work, the workplace is where big changes need to occur. While creating a mentally healthy workplace is everyone’s responsibility, it starts at the top. Leaders play a pivotal role in creating a culture that promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for mental illness, says beyondblue’s lead clinical adviser, Dr Grant Blashki.
“Leaders in workplaces are taking their responsibilities more seriously for the mental health of their workers, and while there’s been a big shift to make workplaces physically safe, we’re also seeing a real transition where employers are taking mental health seriously,” he says.
“Some of the reason for that is compassion—you want to have a healthy workplace and you want your workers to feel well. There’s also a sort of hard-nosed business angle in that you’re getting less absenteeism, less what we call presenteeism—where people come into work but they’re not really functioning very well—and a reduction in the likelihood of people going off on mental health disability claims.”
Prevention is preferable
Mental health organisations are seeing more workplaces undergo training for managers to help them understand and support the mental health needs of their staff. Psychologist Sabina Read says these programs are often the first opportunity for organisations to discuss mental health.
“I’ve done quite a lot of workshops and facilitation around mental health in the workplace and it’s apparent when I run these workshops that it’s an area that hasn’t been focused on in a big way,” she says. “The workshops are often the first time people really talk about some of this content explicitly.”
Mental health measures don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach, so Read recommends a range of prevention measures, including:
- increasing workers’ sense of autonomy so they have more control over their working conditions; this can include flexible working hours and work-from-home arrangements
- mentoring programs, either formal or informal, so workers can seek advice from a colleague rather than a boss
- exercise programs such as lunchtime running and walking clubs—people who exercise regularly have lower rates of mental illness
- increasing information and awareness with pamphlets or posters and participating in R U OK? Day
- zero tolerance of discrimination and bullying behaviour
Strength in strategy
Read says more organisations are combining these tips with an employee assistance program that offers workers professional and confidential counselling sessions.
“The program is a third-party counselling service the organisation pays for—all employees can access a certain number of sessions with a counsellor around any issue…it doesn’t even have to be about the workplace,” Read says.
“It sends a message to your employees that you take their mental health seriously, that you don’t have all the answers and there’s a confidential third party who can support you.”
Technology is also playing a greater role in mental illness information and prevention. Snapshot, an app designed by the Black Dog Institute, is one example. It allows users to manage factors that may influence depression and anxiety. Users input information about their general happiness, mood, work stress, sleep, social support and alcohol intake to receive feedback and options for online and offline help.
There are also several online self-tests for depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder as well as healthy sleep and interactive self-help programs available.
Attitudes towards mental health have changed considerably in recent years, with more openness and fewer taboos around conditions such as depression and anxiety. As workplaces step up their efforts to embed mental safety, employees can look forward to being part of a team that protects their mental health just as much as their physical health.
Anyone needing mental health support can contact beyondblue in Australia at 1300 22 4636 or, if you are experiencing a crisis, Lifeline on 13 11 14 in Australia, 1-800-273-8255 in the USA, or call Sane in the UK on 0300 304 7000.
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