Mental health at work – Is your business in the right head space?

Addressing issues of mental health in the workplace require an understanding of the causes and symptoms of illness. Ai Group explains why employers must account for the mental wellbeing of their workforce.

There is little doubt that mental health has been an emerging issue for Australian workplaces for some time. In 2009, it was claimed mental illness is to the 21st century what physical industrial diseases like silicosis were to the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, by 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that depression, one form of mental illness, will become the second most important cause of disability in the world.

Given that poor psychological health inhibits workers’ ability to use their knowledge and skills at work and that those with poor psychological health have more absence and are less productive, the lack of attention to such issues creates a burden both for business and for society, and potentially causes harm to workers and their families.

At a compliance level, each state’s workplace health and safety (WHS) legislation obliges employers, so far as is reasonably practicable, to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This means that action must be taken to prevent or lessen potential risks to the health and safety of affected employees and their colleagues – including the affected person’s own mental wellbeing.

In addition, once a mental health condition exists, various federal and state discrimination laws create a general prohibition on discrimination against an employee because of a disability, which includes mental illness. The Fair Work Act 2009 makes it unlawful to take “adverse action” against an employee due to mental illness and also provides that employees with a disability have a right to request a “change in working arrangements”, which the employer can only refuse on reasonable business grounds.

While historically the focus of WHS has been on harm minimisation, organisations are now moving beyond this towards the promotion of protective factors and the development of positive cultures conducive to well-being. While some businesses simply say, “It’s the
right thing to do, so we must do it”, others consider the business case in deciding whether mental health is something that it should be factoring into its HR and WHS policies.

Research indicates that the costs of mental illness in the workplace are great and that there is much employers can do to reduce costs and improve the well-being of their employees. Ai Group saw the emerging need for a broader understanding around mental health in the workplace and as a result developed its Mental Health & Awareness in the Workplace program. This program discusses proven strategies to help organisations identify and manage workplace mental health issues.

How is mental health or ill-health different to stress?
The British Health and Safety Executive defines stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demands placed on them”. It points out, however, that it can be difficult to distinguish when stress turns into a mental health problem and when existing mental health problems become exaggerated or exacerbated by stress at work. Many of the symptoms are similar – e.g. sleeplessness, appetite changes, increased use of alcohol etc. – but the differentiating factors are the severity and duration of the symptoms and the resulting impact on day-to-day life.

From a management perspective, nothing is straightforward. Just as stress may arise from high work demands it can also result from too few demands leading to boredom, feelings of being under-valued or being under-stimulated. Also, what one person perceives as work pressure may result in another experiencing stress and a third person reacting with a mental health problem.

A person’s ability to cope with issues at work may vary depending upon:

  • their personality and coping mechanisms at a particular point in time;
  • their beliefs (note the concept of the “moral injury” which occurs when actions are perceived to be against an individual’s ethical, religious, or cultural beliefs and result in mental distress, depression, and possibly even suicide or suicidal thoughts);
  • what else is happening in their life; and
  • what has occurred previously (e.g. in the case of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder).

Given the above, managers will often have insufficient information to prevent stress reactions so need to be constantly vigilant. This is not only to ensure a workplace conducive to productive work and working relationships but to meet a duty of care to prevent psychological injury in the workplace and to manage and make appropriate adjustments for employees suffering a degree of mental ill-health.

Prolonged exposure to mental stress in the workplace – whether as a result of high work load, exposure to violence, bullying and harassment, trauma, and other factors – can
lead to mental illnesses, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety, as well as physical conditions, such as increased blood pressure, migraines, and sleep disorders.

While there may be a fine line between stress and mental health disorders, the symptoms of mental and behavioural disorders may vary substantially but will generally be characterised by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour, and relationships with others.

People with mental disorders may feel frustration, anger, loneliness, embarrassment, exhaustion, fear, desperation, and hopelessness but the vast majority will not be violent. Mental health rarely conforms to stereotypes that people might remember from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and only about one in a hundred people experience the more severe forms of mental illness.

Most mental health problems are short-lived, especially if dealt with early, and many people with mental health issues will still be able to be productive at work. Some, however, may need time away from work or other accommodations made, such as alteration of duties or hours of work on a short-term or long-term basis.

BeyondBlue reports that research has shown a correlation between high levels of good mental health and increased learning, creativity, productivity, more pro-social behaviour and positive social relationships, and with improved physical health. On the other hand, mental health conditions can cause distress, impact on day-to-day functioning and relationships, and are associated with poor physical health and premature death from suicide.

However, the issue is not a simple black and white one. There will be degrees of mental health and degrees of mental illness. In the workplace, the aim is to have as many people as possible who experience positive mental health and supported by workplace practices and culture that adds value to mental health rather than detracting from it. This can involve issues including job design, job fit, culture, adequate remuneration, working hours, team cohesion, supervisory and management practices, performance pressures, bullying, and discrimination.

Ai Group offers onsite training in Mental Health and Awareness in the Workplace. Ai Group’s online HR Resource Centre is a great reference centre for articles, templates, and documents on HR issues.