Mental health is a term often used interchangeably for conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, mental health isn’t about illness. It’s about wellness.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
All of us experience low mood, sadness, stress and anxiety from time to time which is part of being human. However sometimes, things happen that affect mental wellbeing, which in turn can impact workplaces. And sometimes, work environments can affect mental health.
Poor mental health in the workplace can have negative repercussions on businesses through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and work performance, lower staff morale, and increased costs associated with managing the issue.
It’s vital therefore that employers prioritise mental health in the workplace (wherever that may be – home or the office), especially during these challenging times – not only because it is the right thing to do and equates to better business, but also because it is their duty of care and legal responsibility to do so.
Employer responsibilities for mental health in the workplace
Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws not only cover risks to physical health and safety, but risks to psychological health as well. That means that employers must “eliminate or minimise the risk to psychological health and safety arising from the work carried out by business, or undertaking as much as they reasonably can”. [i]
COVID-19 has increased the risks to psychological health and safety at work through:
- increased work demands for some
- increased fatigue
- reduced hours of work for some
- isolated work
- needing to adjust quickly to a rapidly-changing situation
- increased emotional distress leading to bullying or harassment
These factors will be further exacerbated in workplaces where there are poor workplace relationships and/or poor organisational management, and job losses.
The impact of COVID-19 on mental health
Change can be difficult to manage at the best of times, but rapid or constant change can cause great stress and anxiety, and compromise mental health.
COVID-19 is an event that has caused tremendous turmoil, upheaval and change throughout the world, and it continues to do so, as governments and workplaces continue to determine how to best navigate a way through.
In terms of changes in the workplace, some businesses have had to ‘pivot’ and learn to do business in new ways, thereby putting pressure on employees to adjust to new systems and processes. Other businesses have had to try to do business as usual, but with a workforce that is working from home, rather than on site.
Adjusting to these changes, especially on the fly and in an uncertain environment, has been difficult for many. In addition, some workers may be facing job insecurity or working reduced hours, and trying to manage financial pressures that accompany both scenarios. Other workers may be working longer hours as they try to remain productive and adjust to the increased demands that a global pandemic generate.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has also introduced non work-related stress which may be compounding the effects of the stress related to workplaces. This includes anxiety over the safety of loved ones, social distancing measures and associated loneliness, and adjusting to a new way of living until a vaccine is found.
Research conducted by Relationships Australia reveals that COVID-19 has had a major impact on Australia’s mental health, in particular the effects caused by changes to the nature of work, the working environment, and employees’ workloads. [ii]
Those who rely on their workplace for social connection and stimulation have been more affected. Even people with relatively good mental health and wellbeing prior to the pandemic have noticed changes in their mental health.
According to the data 87% of respondents reported a significant change to their workplace since the crisis began, with 63% agreeing that these changes impacted their mental health.
A New Zealand Ministry of Health survey into the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders is one of many research surveys currently being conducted throughout the country to evaluate the effects of COVID-19 on mental health. Early results indicate that 31% of people experienced feelings of loneliness or isolation in the weeks leading up to the survey, while 8% reported depressive or anxiety-related symptoms.[iii]
While workplaces are mandated to take care of the mental health of their workers and may even have strategies in place to support their workers, there is still stigma associated with mental health which may mean that workers could be reluctant to open up to their colleagues or manager and admit they need support.
So how can employers look after their workers, and support them during this difficult time, if mental health is still considered to be one of those ‘taboo’ topics?
‘Normalise’ mental health in the workplace
Workers suffering from poor mental health might be afraid to speak up because they’re worried about how it may impact their employment, or how they’re seen by their employer. Key to addressing these fears is creating a culture where mental health is seen as just as important as physical safety, and not a secondary priority. This can be done by:
- Discussing workplace mental health in the same way as safety, performance and productivity in the workplace
- Creating a culture that values healthy behaviours, such as sensible work hours, respectful communication, eating well, and staying physically active
- Ensuring workers have clarity around leave entitlements related to mental health issues
- Encouraging honest, open discussion about practices, or issues that are causing stress in the workplace.
When workers feel that their company values mental health and will support them if they’re struggling (as opposed to going through the motions to satisfy WHS criteria), they are more likely to be forthcoming about bringing mental health issues to light.
Creating a mentally healthy workplace
Mental health is a major factor in how we live our lives, including how we work. When mental health is good, people are productive, happy and healthy, and are able to bounce back from what life throws at them. But when it’s poor, it can be difficult to function on a daily basis, find meaning in our work, and in our life.
How businesses survive and emerge from COVID-19 will largely depend upon their workforce, so protecting and strengthening the mental health of their workers is more important than ever right now.
Ask employees how they’re going. This could be via anonymous surveys, in an open meeting, or even one-on-one conversations. Questions to consider include:
- Are there any aspects of their working arrangements that they’re finding difficult?
- Is anything about their working environment impacting their mental health?
- Is lack of clarity around their role, responsibilities, and expected outcomes causing stress or frustration?
- How are they feeling about the recent changes to business?
- Do they have any feedback or suggestions on how to make things easier and less stressful?
- Are they aware of any colleague who may be struggling?
- Are other COVID-related factors (e.g. health of loved ones, financial hardship, etc.) causing them stress?
Once employers have asked their questions, they must listen in order to facilitate change that will make a difference. Being defensive or angry about feedback provided by employees is counterproductive, as is turning deaf ear to what’s really going on. This will only compound the issue of poor mental health in the workplace.
Reacting to employee feedback involves responding with empathy first and foremost. It’s unlikely that employees will be as productive as they may have been before the pandemic, so making allowances for this and providing a little flexibility might help. Employers should also identify factors that are genuinely impacting mental health at work, and consider ways to change these where possible, as well as how to better support to workers.
Finally, employers need to take action to support their employees who may be struggling with their mental health. This may involve
Keeping them in the loop regarding changing work environments
Offering mental health training and resources to workers and managers
Connecting people to appropriate support services, tools and resources where required
Ensuring workers are keeping sensible hours, so they have time to engage in other activities, as well as exercise and plenty of sleep
Look for ways of working that will help workers reduce stress associated with their daily work
Tailor this support to individual or team needs
Check in regularly with employees who are struggling
Approve requests for leave or investigate ways to modify duties that will take pressure of affected staff
Continue to follow up with workers to ensure these strategies are working, and keep modifying things as needed.
A great time to begin to raise awareness of mental health and develop initiatives that support workers is during Mental Health Awareness Week (NZ) which runs from 21-27 September, 2020, and Mental Health Week (Australia) which runs from 10-8 October, 2020.
A mentally healthy workplace is one that protects its workers, promotes mental health, and provides the right support to those who need it. There is no magic bullet to creating happy, healthy workplaces. It’s a process that involves consultation, action, review and modification. In periods of rapid change, reviewing and modifying strategies will be key in being able to provide the right support that workers need.
However, when mental health is valued by leaders and the appropriate support and resources are provided, there are real benefits to people, and to business.
[i] Safe Work Australia, Mental Health, https://covid19.swa.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/general-industry-information/mental-health?tab=tab-toc-employer
[ii] Relationships Australia, Have the COVID-19 workplace changes affected people’s mental health? https://www.relationships.org.au/news/media-releases/have-the-covid-19-workplace-changes-affected-peoples-mental-health
[iii] New Zealand Ministry of Health, DOVID-19 Health and Wellbeing Survey results released, Media release, 21 May 2020
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