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What you need to know about mental health in the workplace

Mental health in the workplace is one of the most challenging issues leaders and managers face.. Overlooked for years, it is now widely acknowledged that mental illness can have a huge impact on productivity, to the tune of $10 billion a year.

In the lead-up Mental Health Week 2016, Leadership Matters quizzed Nick Arvanitis, Head of Workplace Research & Resources at beyondblue, about what leaders and managers need to know about mental health at work.

What happens when we ignore mental health in the workplace?

Firstly, there’s an individual impact, says Arvanitis. “It’s very important for people to seek treatment and support early on when they realise they might be struggling with the symptoms of a mental health condition.” Concern about their ability to remain in the workforce might prevent an individual from seeking treatment, which have a detrimental effect on their quality of life

There’s also the organisational impact. “We know that people with mental health conditions are generally, if they’re not managing their conditions well, are less productive in the workplace,” says Arvanitis. “They’re more likely to turn up to work and not be fully productive, they’re more likely to take days off work, if their mental health condition is related to their work then there’s the potential that a stress claim is submitted and that can impact on their employer as well.” The onus, he says, is on organisations to promote a mentally healthy workplace, identify how the working environment could be a potential stressor and take action to minimise those stresses.

What are some of the signs that a workplace has a problem with mental health?

There are some telltale signs to watch for:

  • A high level of stigma surrounding mental illness, which can prevent people from discussing mental health in the fear that their employer or manager is not educated about the prevalence and impact of mental health conditions. “People may feel that they may be discriminated against if they do put up their hand,” says Arvanitis.
  • High levels of stress with no processes in place to identify the potential stressors that affect workers, and no action taken to minimise those stresses. “A lot of people don’t realise the legal responsibilities for employers when it comes to reducing job stress in the workplace,” says Arvanitis. “OH&S obligations that exist in every state and territory apply to physical health but they also apply to mental health…If managers and senior leaders don’t speak to frontline staff to identify what stressors they face, that’s a sign that an organisation isn’t taking mental health seriously.”
  • The absence of internal support services is often an indication that a workplace may have a problem with mental health. Another sign is a lack of promotion of external support services, so that if someone is struggling with a mental health condition they know where they can go for help, Arvanitis explains.

Who is at risk?

There are a range of risk factors that are found in most industries and workplaces, says Arvanitis. These general stressors include long working hours, time pressures, not having support from managers or colleagues, a feeling of a lack of control over work and no flexibility.

Ultimately what we want to do is create an environment where it’s perfectly normal to have a conversation about mental health and mental illness.

“We also know on top of those general factors that there are some specific industries or workforces that have unique risk factors,” Arvanitis says. Police and emergency services workers face challenges around exposure to trauma, difficult interactions with the public, shift work and the inherent danger that comes with the job. Hospital sector staff face similar challenges, while in the mining industry fly-in-fly-out workers often must contend with social isolation and disconnection from their family and support network. “It’s important for each industry to have an understanding of what the particular challenges are and the best way to do that is for employers to speak to their staff,” he says.

What role do managers and leaders have in creating a mentally healthy workplace?

“Ultimately what we want to do is create an environment where it’s perfectly normal to have a conversation about mental health and mental illness, and people as much as possible feel comfortable to put their hand up when they are struggling,” says Arvanitis. Having contact with people who have experienced mental health conditions is one way to reduce the stigma surrounding the issue. “We encourage managers and leaders, as much as they feel comfortable, to share their personal experiences of mental illness.”

Managers and leaders should have a basic understanding of the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, so they can spot changes in behaviour which could indicate a person has a problem. “It may be that a person is generally sociable and they start to withdraw socially, or they’re a high performer and their performance drops,” says Arvanitis. A private conversation about that person’s wellbeing – rather than their performance – may follow. Managers should have “the skills and confidence to approach someone in a way that’s going to lead to that person getting the support they need.”

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