First published by ABC Health & Wellbeing 07/07/2014

A mentally healthy workplace has benefits for everyone – employees and employers. Butwhat do these working environments look like and how can businesses create them?

Most of us spend the bulk of our waking lives at work. So wouldn’t it be great if we could all work in an environment where we felt valued, acknowledged, respected and supported?

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Job stress puts many of us at risk of developing a mental health issue and figures suggest almost half of us feel our workplace is mentally unhealthy.

But this is not just a problem for employees. It’s estimated that mental illness costs the Australian economy $20 billion annually in lost productivity and labour participation. Mental illness is now the leading reason for absenteeism, with one in five of us taking time off due to mental health issues in the past year.

Ingrid Ozols, managing director of MentalHealth@Work (a provider of workplace mental health education, training and strategic program development) says presenteeism, when people go to work despite being injured or unwell, also hurts business’s bottom line.

“Presenteeism is when the lights are on but no-one is home. Someone is staring at the computer but on autopilot. It is hard to observe and quantify but is a great burden to workplaces of all shapes and sizes,” she says.

But it’s not a simple equation of a problematic workplace damaging staff mental health. Dr Sam Harvey, consultant psychiatrist and head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Group (a partnership between The Black Dog Institute and UNSW), says “workplace mental health is a complex interaction between individuals, their coping and resilience skills, and their jobs.”

“Many people work in stressful situations and they don’t get unwell. We are only now starting to look at what it is about their resilience and coping mechanisms.”

Andrew’s story

Andrew* confided in one of his bosses that he’d been feeling anxious at work since the latest restructure. He was having difficulty concentrating and was taking time off almost every week. He eventually went to the doctor who prescribed a short course of medication and arranged cognitive behavioural therapy. After a month or two Andrew had his anxiety under control and was soon working at full capacity.

Despite this spell of anxiety, Andrew was eventually promoted to a senior executive role and since then has never taken a day off work for anxiety. Now he says he is “flourishing”.

Case study provided by Ingrid Ozols. (*Andrew’s name was changed to protect his privacy.)

A mentally healthy workplace

To raise awareness around workplace mental health and to encourage business leaders to give mental health the same priority as physical health and safety, beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance recently launched the Heads Up campaign.

Heads Up describes a mentally healthy workplace as: “one that protects and promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for depression and anxiety, for the benefit of the individual, organisation and community”.

Ozols says “any workplace… that is healthy and thriving, has healthy and resilient cooperative collaborative teams and individuals working towards the same outcomes.”

And when work is going well, she says it does much more than provide an income.

“Work provides connectedness, a sense of meaning, structure, purpose and allows us to feel a sense of achievement, an identity,” she says.

Research shows that work may also protect against of development of depression and anxiety.

What goes wrong?

Yet, despite the benefits, work can become a risk factor for developing mental health conditions.

Harvey says whether someone develops workplace mental health issues comes down to the individual and the job they are doing. But certain factors can contribute including:

  • problems with the job itself,
  • difficult relationships with colleagues or managers,
  • organisational factors,
  • other issues happening in the employee’s life
  • individual factors, such as personality, coping style and level of resilience.

Harvey says problems in the workplace linked to mental health conditions include:

  • High job strain – where your job has high demand yet you have low control over your work.
  • Lack of appropriate reward for effort – not just in terms of pay but also in terms of recognition for the work done.
  • Lack of organisational justice – referring to the way information and resources flow within an organisation.
  • Job insecurity and downsizing – mental health conditions can persist long after an event and appear even in those who keep their jobs.
  • Interpersonal problems and being bullied. Bullying is definitely a risk factor for depression. It often happens when there is a certain personality within an organisational climate that allows it to occur.

Improving mental health at work

Harvey says as most of the mental health problems affecting Australians at work (eg depression, anxiety and substance abuse) are treatable and can be preventable, then the workplace is perfect place to start addressing these issues.

“The workplace is an ideal forum to think about prevention of mental health issues. [This involves] a combination of reducing known risk factors and increasing resilience.”

According to Ozols, it all starts with leadership. “Addressing these factors is a leadership issue that requires honesty, courage, effort, compassion, time, appropriate resourcing and funding to bring about sustainable change.”

She says workplaces need to develop policies and procedures around health, wellbeing, bullying and harassment that are linked to workplace health and safety.

Heads Up encourages businesses to develop an action plan for improving mental health in their organisation. Activities like onsite physical activity programs, coaching and mentoring programs, and education and resilience training can be helpful. But getting employees participate in these activities is critical for success.

When businesses choose to make employee mental health a priority then some of the benefits include:

  • a reduction in the number of sick days people take
  • an increase in respect for leadership from workers
  • a more positive perception of the workplace by workers
  • an increase in productivity and fewer compensation claims.

Heads Up suggests each dollar spent on improving mental health in the workplace returns an average of $2.30 in benefits to the organisation.

If you are struggling?

Harvey says peer support can help you manage stressful situations at work and it’s important to use all the resources available and tap into your usual coping mechanisms.

He says early signs you may be developing a mental health problem include:

  • feeling more anxious more often
  • feeling sadder with a low mood and not getting better
  • not enjoying life as much as usual because of anxiety or a low mood.

Ozols says it can help to get support from:

  • friends and family, close colleagues, a mentor or coach
  • a manager you trust, human resources or workplace health and safety representatives
  • an Employee Assistance Provider (if your workplace has one)
  • your GP (or other health professional such as a counsellor)
  • Lifeline or another crisis line (see more information below)
  • chat forums for mental health issues may also be useful.

Harvey also recommends online resources and apps, such as myCompass (developed by The Black Dog Institute), that are designed to promote resilience and can help you manage early stages of early anxiety and depression.

“Resources such as e-health and online interactions increase the power and ability to get help early on.”

Ozols agrees, but reminds people not to only rely on technology.

“Technology is not a silver bullet. We need a combination of high tech and “high touch” strategies.”

Harvey says you should see your doctor if you are experiencing feelings of hopelessness, have a low mood that is not picking up or are no longer enjoying living.

by Dr Jocelyn Lowinger