Why Workplace Wellness Matters: Strategies to Foster a Mentally Healthy Work Environment

Happy employees huddled around a computer

There are some troubling statistics when it comes to workplace mental health in Australia. Data compiled by the Workplace Mental Health Institute indicates that stress-related workers’ compensation claims are costing the economy over $10 billion every year while work pressure, harassment and bullying accounts for around three-quarters of all psychological injury claims.

And some occupations are more at risk than others. According to research by Safe Work Australia, defence force members, police, firefighters, school teachers and health workers are most likely to experience work-related psychological harm.  

Taking an educational approach to workplace mental health

Beyond Blue, an Australian non-profit organisation which tackles issues associated with mental health, is aiming to raise awareness within Australian workplaces about the importance of workplace mental health. This is why Beyond Blue launched its annual Heads Up campaign—an initiative which takes an educational approach to improving workplace mental health, driving home the reasons why it matters, what a healthy workplace looks like and how to achieve it.

Recently, the Heads Up campaign wrapped up its fourth consecutive year—but, this time, with a creative difference. This year, Heads Up responded to a series of live job advertisements with ‘mock applications’ giving hiring leaders the tools to create mentally healthy workplaces. Indeed spoke to Beyond Blue General Manager Workplace, Partnerships and Engagement, Patrice O’Brien, to get some insights into the issues affecting Australian workplaces and the achievements of their latest Heads Up campaign.

Shifting attitudes; changing times

Workplace mental health is a serious and growing concern for workplaces and their employees. While the World Health Organization now acknowledges the connection between employees’ mental health and workplace productivity, employers are also beginning to realise the importance of nurturing workplace wellness as a means to become an employer of choice in a competitive market.

Patrice says, “There has been a shift in recent years. At a government level, there’s a realisation that workplace mental health is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but there is a real economic benefit to nurturing healthy workplaces. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has talked about the wealth of the nation. “The Productivity Commission has been asked by the Federal Government to investigate the role of mental health in the Australian economy. It is a significant step that can potentially improve outcomes for millions of people.”

“Also, employees are starting to demand different things from their workplaces and employers are recognising they have to change to attract talent. Employees are demanding to work in environments where they feel their voice is heard and their work is meaningful. And where they feel there’s a really strong culture.”

The costs of not getting it right

And the stakes are high. With more than 12 million people spending a third of their week at work, unhealthy workplaces can quickly have a negative impact on workers’ mental wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, Patrice says past Beyond Blue research has shown that having a mentally healthy workplace is second only to pay when employees are looking for a new job.  

Unreasonable demands, lack of role clarity and a failure to tackle discrimination and bullying are just some of the many risk factors employees might look for. On the other hand, Patrice says people thrive when they feel their voices are heard and they’re contributing to something meaningful—and this improved state of mental wellbeing goes well beyond the office door.   

“Workplaces that make for better mental health can contribute to an all-round healthier Australia —which is a great aspiration,” says Patrice.

What are the challenges for Australian employers right now?

Patrice says workplaces have been focusing on the importance of physical safety for many years –occupational death rates and serious injuries have been falling year-on-year. But, because psychological safety is still a relatively new concept, workplaces are still discovering how to make change effectively.

“We don’t yet have clear and consistent guidelines around exactly what workplaces need to do. And that’s something we’re working on,” says Patrice.

“The biggest mistake companies make is focusing on mental health for a short period. We don’t do that for physical safety and it needs to become part of the way we do business. Or, organisations sometimes put out communications around workplace mental health, which encourages people to speak up, but then managers don’t have the relevant training and tools to respond appropriately. So, the employee has a bad experience, and that leads to mistrust.

“Larger organisations are also challenged by trying to get the message out to the whole organisation. Sometimes we see good leadership intent, but that intent doesn’t make its way down to mid-manager level. Meanwhile, leaders of smaller organisations struggle for the resources and capacity to take it seriously among their other duties.”

More than just a “fruit bowl campaign”

Heads Up’s 2018 ‘mock application’ campaign was specifically designed to educate leaders on what a healthy workplace should really look like, beyond the niceties of weekly pilates classes, free fruit and short-term initiatives. Or, as Patrice puts it, “It’s more than just a fruit bowl campaign”.

“This year, it was about focusing on all the true factors of what a mentally healthy workplace actually looks like—the nine key attributes.”

“We’ve had really great feedback about the campaign and strong engagement. One business leader who received the application, told us she was so taken with the mock application she changed some of her interview questions and thought about what type of manager she wanted to attract to contribute positively to workplace mental health. It’s got people talking.”

nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace

So, here are some actionable tips guided by Beyond Blue to help your business make the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace a reality:

Make information readily available among staff

Knowledge is essential to raising awareness of mental health issues and the risks that unhealthy working environments can pose to mental wellbeing. So, it’s important to take steps to ensure staff across an organisation have easy access to the information they need to drive change. There are many online resources available to help managers and leaders achieve this objective. Sending out links to teams and making documents available in staff break-out areas could be a great place to start.

Ensure expectations around role responsibilities are aligned

At a time when many organisations are moving away from the traditional, rigid job description model, managers should offer ongoing clarity to workers around their role requirements and expectations, as well as any changes. Whether it’s through regular one-on-one catch-ups, informal discussions or team meetings, all these steps could offer the sense of meaning and support employees need to fulfil their job requirements most effectively.

Make anti-bullying part of the culture   

In the workplace, bullying and inappropriate behaviour can take many different forms, which means not everyone can recognise these behaviours when they see them. Create greater awareness of the different types of bullying and inappropriate behaviours and ensure there are clear policies in place for reporting and responding to complaints.  

Actively promote positive mental health and wellbeing

Recognising and responding to bad behaviours is incredibly important to improving workplace mental health. But, there are various ways to proactively create an all-round positive working environment. Some of these include developing manager capabilities around career development, promoting team collaboration and participation in social activities, and recognising the value of work as well as celebrating specific achievements.

Combat stigma

It’s one thing to put strategies and procedures in place to recognise and respond to workplace mental health issues, but it counts for nothing unless staff are prepared to speak out, honestly and openly. Set the example by encouraging leaders to speak up about mental health risks, as well as endorsing activities and events aimed at reducing stigma.

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