Mental health is not the taboo subject it once was: we’re hearing about it more, learning about it more, talking about it more. But while community awareness is at an all-time high, there’s still some catching up to be done in the workplace.
Not that it’s all doom and gloom. I’ve come across many organisations committed to developing and sustaining mentally healthy work environments—some even have employee mental health KPIs for their leadership—it’s just not the norm. Yet.
Is this surprising? Yes and no. Manager/employee relationships differ in nature to those between friends and family members. Workplace conversations around mental health need to reflect this. They require a different approach—one that may not come naturally—and so needs to be learned, and supported.
There’s often also reluctance—if not scepticism—on both sides of these conversations. For managers, employee mental health looms as yet another responsibility, and a task some assume will require clinical diagnostic expertise to perform. Employees, on the other hand, may be fearful about speaking openly, lest it impact their current duties and future prospects.
For me, recognising that mental health and mental illness are not one and the same is key. The latter is often the focus, whereas managers need skills mainly in the former—skills that align more or less with those needed for general good leadership practices.
What’s more, most people in the workplace sit at the well end of the mental health spectrum. Focusing attention there, and equipping managers for workplace mental health responsibilities, is unlikely to prove overly taxing.
Last but not least, in an organisation that’s proactive about mental wellbeing, it quickly becomes apparent when someone is struggling. Human Resources, or other appropriate support, can then be called upon to address both problem and symptoms, for the employee concerned.
That level of sophistication takes time to develop; it requires planning, training, good internal communications and above all, top down commitment. There are costs involved, of course, but research shows the return on investment, particularly in productivity terms, can be enormous.
It’s obvious when you think about it: help employees stay mentally healthy by providing a good, psychologically safe work environment and they perform better in their jobs.
Nor should it come as shock to learn that doing nothing about workplace mental health also carries a cost, through avoidable absenteeism, staff turnover and workers’ compensation premiums.
As with any transformative process, getting started is the hard part. But while the path to a mentally healthy workplace should be as individual as the organisation, the principles and much of the day-to-day practice are common.
With that in mind, here are a few small, positive steps managers could start taking immediately, plus a few longer-term goals for senior leadership to consider.
Three instant impact initiatives
1. Get to know your employees holistically
Take a couple of minutes each day to have informal, none work-related conversations with each staff member. Learn what makes them tick—their likes, dislikes, interests, what they’re motivated by, challenged by, how they’re going in general, etc.
2. Start being mindful about taking breaks
A lot of work now is brain-based, and brains are not designed to work constantly at full speed. Like any other muscle they need downtime to recover. Ensure everyone takes a couple of minutes regularly to do something non work-related, something low stress, something relaxing.
3. Begin talking more about mental health
Embed the topic into the workplace by opening team meetings or one-on-ones with ‘wellbeing conversations’, asking questions like, ‘how’s everyone travelling?’. And try to keep the focus on how to stay mentally healthy, rather than mental illness. For example, encourage people to share what they do to overcome stress, how they stay well, and what’s needed to support their wellbeing.
Three longer-term considerations
Talking with employees about how they’re travelling takes skill and confidence. Even just a day of face-to-face training will help managers become more comfortable with workplace wellbeing conversations.
2. Identifying key workplace risks
Looking through a mental health lens will reveal parts of the work environment or workflow design that may create stress or impact employee mental health. Try to minimise them, or better still, remove them altogether; this is a critical, proactive step to developing a more psychologically healthy workplace.
3. Embedding and sustaining
Occupational health and safety is now part and parcel of every modern workplace. The same needs to happen with psychological health and safety. Rather than relying on one-off training days or the occasional workshop, it needs to become part of an organisation’s policy, culture and approach. From board level down, it would help enormously if everyone was equipped with an understanding of why a mentally healthy workplace is important.
This article was provided by Dr Laura Kirby, Director of Communicorp Group, not by AustralianSuper. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, who made their comments based on their experience and expertise