Mental health strategies key to workplace success

Mental health strategies key to workplace success

By Betty Frino

Mental health has become a national concern with data showing record levels in the number and seriousness of psychological injuries in Australian workplaces.

For organisations, these surface through absenteeism, reduced productivity or quality of work, increased turnover, and higher workers’ compensation claims. More alarming is that on average, work-related psychological injuries have longer recovery times, higher costs, and require more time away from work compared to physical injuries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this issue. We have witnessed record levels of mental health claims at work in Australia, amounting to a 50 per cent increase over the past five years. Australia’s Productivity Commission inquiry projected this to cost $70 billion annually. Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated a $1 trillion impact on productivity.

Managing psychosocial hazards is now an imperative for organisational leaders under renewed WHS regulations in Australia, with punitive action for failing to act proactively.

Contributing factors include unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of management or organisational support, work environment, inappropriate workplace behaviours (bullying or harassment), insecure work, and unfair treatment. The modern workplace brings added challenges with remote or hybrid work arrangements.

Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds to connect us, but is also wearing us down, with feelings of isolation, lack of support or agency, and the potential for home-work conflict. Leaders are also tasked with ensuring worker wellbeing is maintained when working away from the office.

Hybrid Summit: Public Sector Workplace Mental Health Strategies

Why wait for the directive?

While it might seem to be yet another obligation to meet, this is an opportune time to act with intent, seize opportunities to create a workplace free from harm and turn compliance into competitive advantage. The mentally resilient workforces of today will extend their competitive advantage over their less developed counterparts.

Are today’s organisations prepared?

Wellbeing in organisations is often misaligned or misdirected and focuses on individual psychological remedies, failing to consider the role of work and workplace environment as a key factor that impacts worker mental health.

Relying on EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) are reactive and have a lagged effect. Initiatives such as free healthy office lunches or gym membership are short-lived with onus placed on individuals. The new regulations require proactive measures designed to improve “prevention” and “promotion”. The industry guidelines suggest a proactive, integrated approach to manage psychosocial hazards and risks.

Should leaders or HR take charge of wellbeing?

Senior leaders are expected to drive the initiative. Organisations often lack wellbeing or mental health experts and instead assign responsibility to the HR department with little training, specialist knowledge, and insufficient resources. Importantly, it must become a strategic imperative with a targeted focus on mental health and be built into broader company culture, strategy and operations.

Leaders that adopt a positive safety culture and a no-blame approach to safety reporting are more likely to build a mentally healthy workforce.

How can organisations reach the right level of mental health maturity?

This is not a short-term solution or fix. Part of the challenge for organisations is the difficulty in identifying mental health issues. Most organisations discover an issue only after symptoms surface or an incident is reported. Sharing information on hazards and risks, giving workers a reasonable opportunity to express their views, report concerns, or unveil their own situations without fear or repercussion will address this. While it is clear from the new regulations that senior leaders are responsible, mental health is everyone’s business. It is a shared responsibility.

A human-centred focus and consultation with workers is key here (and a legal requirement). Consulting and engaging your workers and enabling them to contribute to the decision-making process on mental health is likely to yield better outcomes.

Where to start?

Before embarking on your workplace mental health strategy, senior leaders must consider their organisational objectives. A clear, well-communicated organisational workplace mental health policy is essential. Acknowledge the reality through a gap analysis to identify and bridge the gaps to WHS compliance. Leaders should then reassess their position, assign authority, and allocate sufficient resources to relevant WHS and HR divisions. Using forward-looking measures targeted specifically at psychological health and safety is key.

But remember, it’s not just about compliance. Organisations will only be able to improve the mental health literacy of their workforce by taking a proactive approach and instilling a positive safety culture through strong leadership.

*Dr Betty Frino is a lecturer in the University of Wollongong School of Business.

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