Mental health on the job

By now it has become clear that mental health is a big OHS issue. As Marko Turner writes, the benefits of establishing a psychologically safe and healthy workplace cannot be ignored.

The Australian workplace has hit a tipping point. The escalating business costs of ignoring psychosocial risks are becoming too great and the productivity benefits of a psychologically safe and healthy workplace are now identifiable and clearer to promote.

With Australian businesses losing $14.81 billion each year to psychological health issues, organisations can no longer afford to be ignorant or reactive toward the risks and legislative requirements.

Promoting mentally healthy workplaces is being globally recognised and now actively encouraged. In the last couple of years Australia’s business leaders have been coming together to take action based upon the emerging evidence.

For example, a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers report demonstrated that Australian businesses will receive an average return of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in effective workplace mental health strategies.

Psychologically safe and healthy workplaces are visible via a continu­um. On one end, there are the unhealthy workplaces characterized by high levels of absenteeism, turnover, incivility, psychological injury and wastage as well as low levels of productivity, worker satisfaction and engagement.

At the other end, there are psychologically safe and healthy workplaces with higher levels of respect, engagement, robust communication, good job fit and productivity. These are places where employees are engaged with their work and feel both physical and psychosocial safety. When all these conditions are met there are flourishing workplaces with high levels of sustainable productivity, performance, engagement and discretionary effort.

The psychosocial hazards of work are growing and many working environments are becoming less physically active due to advances in technology and increasing emphasis upon the service sector. In this transition and with reduction in manufacturing the industry is therefore experiencing significant psychosocial risks associated with change, challenge and uncertainty. For those within manufacturing there are a number of unique stresses, such as survivor guilt.

Recent revisions in workplace health and safety legislation have made employer and particularly manager/supervisor responsibilities for protecting employees against psychosocial risks ever more explicit. Nevertheless, given the escalating costs of psychological injuries employers can no longer take a reactive approach.

Manufacturing, like every other industry, is now being compelled to incorporate the psychological dimensions and regularly audit and update their best practice policies. Employers taking this path must build the necessary and sufficient conditions for psychological safety and health to be established and then improved.

For the manufacturing sector there is substantial evidence linking a physical safety climate to safety behaviour and performance, particularly in reducing industrial accidents and errors.

The psychosocial safety climate of any organisation is now being seen as equally important – it can predict both the positive aspects of employee engagement, such as productivity,

and the negative aspects of the modern workplace, such as bullying/harassment and psychological health problems.

Psychological health hazards and risks must first be identified and addressed before any growth rewards and productivity incentives can be fully utilised and truly realised.

The problem with traditional approaches to psychosocial health hazards is that most of them are reactive and increasing in costs – to the corporate insurance premiums, the competitive advantage of the organisation and for the lives of employees. They typically only come into force once a problem is identified.

Businesses that want to protect their employees and business from mental health issues must adopt a preventative if not proactive approach. This means ensuring they have the correct systems, policies, procedures and capabilities in place.

Then we can build resilience capabilities across the organisation and enable workers to improve and flourish.

A resilient workforce is one that is equipped to deal with any mental health issues that might affect its employees. Most important for the manufacturing sector, a resilient workforce is able to respond positively to the psychological pressures of change, uncertainty and potential downsizing.

At the core of a psychologically healthy workplace and key to its success are the individuals that make up the organisation. By proactively investing in their mental health businesses can protect against litigation and create a more positive work environment for everyone.

[Marko Turner is a Senior Consultant Psychologist at CommuniCorp. He specialises in driving business development whilst promoting organisational health.]