The Workplace Mental Health Toolkit
In this guide, we'll discuss the basics of supporting workplace mental wellbeing from the modern challenges employers now face to the duties and obligations that employers have to their employees. The workplace mental health toolkit includes:
- Defining Mental Health
- Mental Health and the Workplace
- The State of Mental Health in Australia and New Zealand
- The Cost of Poor Mental Health in the Workplace
- Industries at Higher Risk of Poor Mental Health
- Preventive Psychology: Keeping your People Mentally Fit
- Duties & Obligations of Employers: an OHS Perspective
Employers and employees today are encountering unprecedented challenges across all industries. Stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression are all factors that need to be considered when managing the modern workforce. In a world where employees spend more and more time at work, and where the “virtual workplace” makes the boundary between home and work life increasingly blurred, there is a need for a better understanding, protection, management, support, and promotion of Mental Wellbeing. There is no question that everyone can benefit from better mental health management, and that better mental health management is an achievable goal with the right processes and resources in place.
Defining Mental Health
What is Mental Health?
Mental health still has a negative connotation. Many wrongly use the concept interchangeably with mental illness or a mental condition. But just as everyone has a physical health status, they also have a mental health status — and just as people should be proactive about their physical health, they should be proactive about their mental health, too.
Anyone can experience poor mental health or wellbeing. This doesn’t indicate a mental illness, which is a clinically diagnosed disorder. There will always be times when people feel stressed, anxious, or depressed, and it’s important that everyone has the tools to manage these negative mental states. Health isn’t an on/off switch; there are different degrees of health. People move on a continuum from good mental health to poor mental health. When these periods of poor mental health become more frequent or harder to shift, then it can turn into a diagnosed mental illness (such as anxiety or depression).
Historically, mental health has been a delicate topic. Employers and HR managers alike may find it a difficult and awkward conversation to broach, and may not know how to help employees who are exhibiting signs of poor mental health.
But how do we specifically define mental health and mental wellbeing? Mental health and mental wellbeing directly relate to the social and emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities. When it comes to workplace mental health, “mental health” may include how workers feel at work and how they feel at home.
On the other hand, mental illness is a diagnosed disorder which occurs when people are struggling with their mental health. There is a full breadth of potential mental illness, and employers are not adequately equipped to diagnose mental illness on their own. Not everyone struggles with mental illness at some point in their lives. For those that choose to disclose their condition, it is an employer’s job to give employees options and resources.
While everyone has “mental health,” not everyone has a mental illness. Further, “mental illness” and a lack of mental health can occur on an incredibly broad spectrum. One employee’s experience of “stress” may be entirely disparate from another employee’s experience of “stress.” Employees may also encounter different mental health challenges based on gender or background.
Mental Health and the Workplace
Mental Health and Common Workplace Issues
One in five Australian employees have taken time off from work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months. Only half of Australian employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy. Elevated levels of depression, anxiety, and stress are being reported among Australian adults following the COVID-19 pandemic and New Zealand citizens are reporting greater levels of generalized anxiety. Today’s uncertain climate makes it more critical than ever for employers to take an active role in employee mental health.
What impacts mental wellbeing in the workplace? There are a number of risk factors: job clarity, job demand, job safety, a lack of resources, a lack of recognition, or even bullying and harassment. And, of course, employees are people first; poor mental wellbeing can be carried over from external events such as health-related issues, family-related issues, and environmental problems.
For employees, it feels obvious when their employers aren’t supporting their mental health. For employers, it can be more of a challenge. Without direct information from employees, it can be easy to overlook mental health issues or address mental health issues solely in terms of poor employee performance. Employers may feel as though they are being asked to read minds or engage with employees on an in-depth level that they cannot achieve.
It’s in every employer’s best interest to proactively address mental health issues rather than reactively.
Employees spend the majority of their time at work. Better workplace mental health can directly correlate to better mental health overall, which leads to better workplace outcomes. When employees can take care of their mental health, they have better morale. They are more likely to be productive and have more respect for their management. They are less likely to leave for other opportunities, and consequently less likely to lead to expensive employee churn.
Common issues encountered today include:
Depression: Depression can lead to feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion. Employees may not perform well when depressed, may feel as though their work doesn’t matter, may miss deadlines, and may not respond well to mistakes or correction.
Anxiety: Anxiety can lead to paralysis and avoidance. Employees may start to avoid deadlines and meetings, or may not come to work at all. Anxieties may seem “touchy” or aggressive, as their anxiety may manifest as frustration.
Stress : Stress can lead to frustration and inferior work product. Employees may rush through their work because they feel overwhelmed or avoid their work until the last minute.
Burnout : Some employees who are stressed may exhibit excellent performance — until they inevitably burnout. Burnout occurs when employees continue to push past their own limits, often because they are under-staffed or over-pressured.
COVID-19 has upended many industries. Employees may be getting fewer hours, interacting with each other less, or making less money. They may be facing issues at home, have sick family members, or have family members who have been out of work themselves. They may feel socially isolated due to the previous quarantine. There’s a full breadth of issues that may be facing employees that they have never encountered before.
While Australia and New Zealand are on their way towards recovering from COVID-19, there are still economic consequences to the pandemic. Large projects have been put on hold. Companies are being cautious about expansion. Hours are being pulled back. Employers and HR managers alike are going to need to adapt to this new landscape themselves and help their employees summit these challenges. COVID-19 support services can help.
The State of Mental Health in ANZ
The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia and New Zealand
While only 52 percent of employees in Australia believe that their workplace is mentally healthy, 76 percent believe their workplace is physically safe. Employers do want to make sure that employees are safe, but mental health is somewhat more nebulous and difficult to protect than physical safety. Only five in ten Australians believe that their senior leaders value their mental health at all, which is a tremendous disconnect to have between employer and employee.
In 2019, the New Zealand Workplace Barometer determined that more than a quarter of employees feel depressed. Stress can be a significant predictor of mental health-related illnesses. Compared to other countries, workplace bullying was seen to be abnormally high in New Zealand. Between one in five to one in three New Zealand workers report being bullied at work.
During the pandemic, 23 percent of Australian and New Zealand adults reported experiencing anxiety, stress, and sadness — despite the government taking swift action. 18 percent of adults in New Zealand and 21 percent in Australia reported hardship related to paying for basic necessities, compared to 7 percent in the Netherlands and 6 percent in Germany.
If employees felt that they weren’t being supported before, they are likely to be even more in need now.
Australia and New Zealand have been able to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through isolation and shutdowns. But these shutdowns themselves, while necessary, can eventually take a mental toll, especially due to lower social interaction and feelings of isolation. This is something that employers are going to need to consider moving forwards.
High Risk Industries of Poor Mental Health
High-Risk Industries & Demographics of Poor Mental Health
High-risk industries for mental health in Australia include Agriculture; Public Administration and Safety; and Transport, Postal and Warehousing. In New Zealand, occupational stress and depression in farming and agriculture is estimated to be costing billions.
Industries with low mental health wellbeing often correlate to lower instances of physical safety (Agriculture scores particularly low marks, as does Administrative and Support Services), but not always. It’s easy to understand why: workers are easily stressed when they can be easily injured.
What does it mean to be a high-risk industry? High-risk industries for mental health are industries that are inherently more stressful.
- Agriculture involves long hours and potentially dangerous machinery. Drought and fires have affected the Australian agricultural industry and upset its stability and sustainability. Workers need more time to themselves as well as assurances that their positions are secure.
- Public Administration and Safety includes policymakers in high-stress positions, as well as police officers, security officers, and guards who may be frequently at risk. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are all common. Those in this industry need more mental health support and need it to be readily accessible.
Transport, Postal, and Warehousing, as an industry, is one of the areas that has been most financially stressed in recent years due to its susceptibility to economic shocks. and is one of the areas in which employees themselves are feeling much of this stress. In fact, studies find that 1 in 4 workers report that they are dealing with financial stress. Employers need to be able to promise employees stability, or at minimum transparency, to counter this.The more demanding the work is, the more employee mental health needs to be addressed and protected. When employees sense danger lurking around every corner, they don’t feel supported by their employers — and they don’t feel valued by their organization.
There are limitations to what an employer can reasonably accomplish. An employer cannot make a high-risk industry low-risk. But employers can do everything under their control to reduce the risks that are present. Employers should understand what makes their industry high-risk, and tackle the challenges that are unique to them — by giving their employees support with the problems that they face.
Demographics and Culture as Key Risk Factors
In addition to generally high-risk industries, there are also high-risk demographics. The Maori population is almost twice as likely to experience mental illness. In Australia, the Indigenous population is far more likely to experience depression. More than 30 percent of the Aboriginal population reports mental distress, compared to 20 percent for other Australians.
Another large demographic that is less likely as a whole to seek help with mental health? Men.
For high-risk populations, mental illness increases often have to deal with the unique challenges those populations are experiencing. While employers and HR managers may not be able to address societal problems directly, nor the difficulties inherent to their industries, they can provide their employees with the mental health tools they need to cope, and they can be understanding about these mental health challenges.
Beyond legal duties and obligations, employers in high-risk industries need to:
- Provide employees with mental health resources.
- Make employees aware of the resources available.
- Ensure that employees have easy access to those resources.
Thus, even though the employers may not be able to eliminate the risks inherent to the industry, they can give employees the tools that they need to cope with the high-risk work they are engaged in.
Keeping your People Mentally Fit
Preventive Psychology: Keeping your People Mentally Fit
What can workplaces do to support mental health? It requires a two-pronged approach: one, to reduce risk factors, and two, to help employees be more resilient and to foster a culture of openness and support.
This must be combined with the understanding that the world is changing, and that there may be additional elements of uncertainty in an employee’s day-to-day life. Signs that might once have been symptomatic of a “poor performer” could today be indicative of a deeper problem.
What are some of the signs that someone could be struggling with their mental health? According to Health Direct:
- Feeling anxious or worried : Employees may be complaining more frequently about their work, may be avoiding work that they feel particularly sensitive about, or may be asking for consultations and second opinions more often. Anxiety and worry can manifest in many ways to an employer, and an employer may need to be understanding with the employee, or take some of their work off their plate.
- Feeling depressed or unhappy : Employees may start calling out sick more frequently or may seem apathetic and unavailable when they are present. They may have an attitude that “nothing matters.” Without context, this might appear to be poor performance. Employers may need to be more understanding of poor employee performance and offer employees resources before punitive action.
- Emotional outbursts : Employees may show higher levels of interpersonal conflict at work. They may be getting into more disagreements than is typical or may be arguing with their supervisory staff more often. Emotional outbursts can also exist without conflict: Employees may break down in tears, or need moments to compose themselves.
- Problems with sleep hygiene : Employees may come to work looking exhausted, or appear to be fatigued and unable to concentrate. They may mention they are experiencing insomnia or may arrive late at work because they have overslept.
- Weight or appetite changes : Employees may experience rapid weight gain or weight loss. Understandably, weight is a sensitive subject and should never be directly broached. Still, it may be a warning sign that an employee is experiencing either a mental or physical health issue.
- Becoming quiet or withdrawn : Employees may become quieter than they have been in the past. They may stop interacting in employee text channels, stop taking calls, and be unreachable through email. Employers should communicate with employees who appear to be “disconnecting” or “dropping out” to determine whether there may be issues that need to be addressed.
- Engaging in substance abuse : Employees may act erratically or unpredictably due to substance abuse. They may come in exhausted after a night of drinking or may appear to be intoxicated during work. Substance abuse issues need to be addressed immediately by employers because they can be dangerous, especially on work sites.
- Feeling guilty or worthless : Employees may start to take criticism particularly hard, and may no longer want to work on projects they are well-qualified for because they feel as though they wouldn’t be able to accomplish them. Employers should endeavour to maintain programs that can build up employee confidence and give them the tools they need to recover their self-esteem.
- Changes in behaviour or feelings : Finally, a general change in an employee’s habits may indicate that something is wrong, regarding their mental health or their general at-home situation.
As an employer or HR professional, it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse – understand how employees are feeling and notice things that may be affecting them. Often, the best option for an HR professional is to ensure that resources are available when employees need them. Aside from this:
- Engage employees in resilience training such as The Good Day Project.
- Managers should have training to recognize the potential signs of mental distress.
- Employees should regularly be trained on their own coping skills, styles, and mental health management.
- Care should be taken to ensure that employees have the resources they need and are not overburdened. This may include providing access to EAP, and the provision of resources from non-profit organisations such as The Blackdog Institute and Beyond Blue.
- A general emphasis on health, including physical health, should be integrated into the organization’s processes. We recommend engaging employees in physical classes, as their crucial health will be pertinent to their mental health.
- Senior management should be brought on-board and encouraged to take a role in shaping health initiatives.
Vitality Works has formed a partnership with The Healthy Minds Program and Dr. Tom Nehmy, a global pioneer in preventative psychology. Through this partnership, clients are offered a bundle of Mental Wellbeing webinars and workshops — to better equip their employees with the skills and knowledge they need to maintain an optimal level of mental health and well-being. The Program takes a cutting-edge approach to preventive psychology, helping employees to build resilience, promote wellbeing, and drive performance. It https://vitalityworks.health/contact-us/ successfully takes the sophisticated psychological skills that promote mental health out of the therapy room and into workplaces through tailored personal development programs, seminars, and webinars.
Mental Health in the workplace should be a priority at any time during the year as mental ill-health can happen at any time. But Mental Health Week in September (NZ) and October (AU + International) is a great opportunity for employers to promote mental health in the workplace and integrate their new mental health initiatives. By calling attention to mental health, and creating a safe space for employees who are struggling, employers can encourage employees to take control of their mental health and utilise the resources and tools they have available.
Contact Vitality Works to learn more about our mental health programs.
The Cost of Poor Mental Health in the Workplace
Poor Mental Health in the Workplace: The Consequences and Outcomes
Poor mental health in the workplace eventually takes its toll.
It’s estimated that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion a year. This includes $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism, and $146 million in compensation claims. In NZ, the direct cost of absenteeism is $1.4 billion, and it’s estimated that each employee has three times as many “presentee” days as “absentee” days. Ultimately, there’s no denying that employees’ unhealthy habits as a result of poor mental health can kill your bottom line.
Employees who are experiencing mental health issues may not show up to work, and if they do, they may not be effective. Employees may experience serious medical issues that need to be addressed — and that can lead to claims for compensation. Overall, poor mental health can become part of company culture, leading to flagging productivity, increased injuries, and reduced efficiency throughout.
Of course, employers want their employees to be healthy — not just because of funding, but because they care. Employers do have an ethical obligation to their employees, and most employers would prefer that their employees be as happy, safe, and healthy as they can.
But today — during an indefinite period of economic uncertainty — many companies are being asked to strip down their budgets simply to survive. Careful companies are reducing their budgets to bare bones because they don’t know what the future might look like, and they don’t want to overextend themselves. During this budget-cutting, it’s easy for employee health and wellness programs to get the axe, especially if employees are working fewer hours, or working from home.
With that in mind, it’s essential to understand the relationship between ROI and mental health. Employers who decide to pull back on their mental health spending may not get the results they want or expect.
First, there’s an expectation among workers that employers should assist those experiencing depression or anxiety. Employees who feel abandoned may not work effectively or may not work at all.
75 percent of Australian employees believe that their workplaces should support someone experiencing depression and anxiety, and 64 percent believe they should have some form of support from colleagues, management, or a union. This can equally be a challenge to achieve if employees are no longer working in an office, or if employees are being called in less frequently. In NZ, 30 percent of employees have personal experience with mental illness. This is a substantial number of employees who may need their employer’s help to remain active and whole.
67 percent of employees and 68 percent of leaders agree that workplace mental health is a shared responsibility — a relatively equal number. And that means that employees expect the leadership of their organization to work with them to protect their mental health.
Fundamentally, an employee’s belief that their employer has an ethical obligation to support their mental health is stronger than their belief that they have a legal obligation to support their mental health. Only 61 percent of employees believe that employers have legal responsibilities, while 75 percent believe workplaces have an ethical obligation. This expectation forms the basis of how employees approach their employers in terms of their mental health, and how morale, respect, and trust can suffer when mental health is sidelined.
One in five Australians (21 percent) have taken time off from work because they felt stressed, anxious, or depressed; these are employees who would have been present at work if they weren’t experiencing mental health difficulties. This statistic is almost twice as high (46 percent) among those who consider their workplaces mentally unhealthy. All this impacts the company’s productivity, and can indirectly affect the bottom line. Similarly, New Zealand has also experienced increased stress and anxiety, costing the New Zealand economy $1.79B in 2018 due to absenteeism.
Though an organization may be able to cut back on its mental health initiatives, this will ultimately cost them in terms of employee morale, the quality of their output, and consequently, employee productivity. And when the economic situation rebounds, these employees may be the first to look to leave.
Employees who believe their workplace is mentally unhealthy are unlikely to disclose to their employers that they are experiencing a mental health condition. They are also unlikely to seek support from HR/management or even to offer support to a colleague with a mental health condition. Ultimately, this leads to issues that are allowed to fester. Employees with low morale will take more time off, will be less active and proactive when they are present, and may ultimately walk away from the job entirely. So, an employer hoping to save money by cutting back on mental health could actually be costing themselves money.
But that doesn’t mean that mental healthcare for employees has to be expensive. Just as employers invest in their infrastructure proactively to avoid expensive issues down the line, employers can invest in mental health to avoid bigger problems. The easiest way for employers to manage both their budget and their healthcare programs is to become creative about the ways in which they’re providing mental health support.
Legal Duties & Obligations of Employers
Legal Duties & Obligations of Employers: Occupational Health & Safety
Creating a mentally healthy workplace is everyone’s responsibility. But mental health is a leadership issue: Change has to start at the top. Business owners and organizational leaders play a critical role in driving policies and practices that promote mental health in the workplace. Leaders — whether they be employers themselves or their HR team — are the ones with the capacity to positively influence workplace culture, management practices, and the ultimate experiences of employees.
Employers don’t just have ethical obligations to their employees, but also legal duties. In Australia and New Zealand, there are guidelines for mental health, from an Occupational Health & Safety perspective.
These are your responsibilities as an employer:
- Safe work environments : Employers must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and free of risks to help, as far as is reasonably practicable. Keep workplaces that you manage and control safe and free of risk. Employees who feel as though their health is threatened are likely to experience far greater levels of stress. A disorganized, hectic, or frenetic work site may be cause for growing anxiety.
- Suitable facilities for welfare : Employers should have safe and clean areas suitable for employee welfare — restrooms, break areas, and other necessities. The more employees are able to rest and relax, the less likely they are to experience undue stress. Employees need to be able to take breaks from work, both to eat and to reset.
- Proper employee training : Employees need to have the information, instruction, training, and supervision that they need to do their work in a way that is safe, without risks to their health. Better training leads to better, safer employees.
- As few risks and hazards as possible : It’s understandable that any construction worksite is going to have some risks. But it is the duty of employers to reduce risks as much as possible. While employees may need to work with large, dangerous machinery, they should follow the proper processes and procedures, and the equipment should be well-maintained.
- Incident notification : Any notifiable incidents that happen in the workplace should be reported to WorkSafe. This level of accountability ensures that incidents aren’t going ignored and that anything that has to be addressed will be addressed.
- Employee health monitoring : Employee health should be tested relative to the risks they experience. As an example, if employees are exposed to high levels of noise, they should be provided with hearing tests.
- Monitor the conditions of the workplace : Without close monitoring of the environment, an employer cannot tell if risks have escalated or if known hazards have been properly addressed. Consequently, it’s the employer’s responsibility to carefully monitor the conditions of the workplace and address issues as they occur.
- Maintain thorough records regarding health and safety : Records provide a paper trail in the event that an incident does occur. It also ensures that incidents can be addressed correctly. Information on employee health, for instance, can be used to determine better whether an employee may have been exposed to hazards on the job.
- Employee or engage people qualified in OHS : Occupational Health & Safety is an entire discipline unto itself. Employers need to hire those who are experts within their field to advise them. Otherwise, they may not be able to identify their own gaps.
- Consult employees on matters that may directly affect their health, safety, and welfare : Employees know their own processes, job, and limitations the best. Often, they may have the best insights on what an employer can do to protect them from hazards.
- Ensure that the conduct of your business doesn’t endanger other people : That includes visitors, the public, and other workers.
What happens if you don’t meet these requirements? If your organisation is found to be negligent in terms of employee health and safety, you could deal with substantial fines and penalties — or even lead to prosecutions as a result of more serious offences. You have additional, specific obligations if your business involves the manufacture, importation, transportation, supply, storage, handling, or use of dangerous goods or substances. You may also have obligations to meet particular licensing, registration, and certification requirements.
Occupational Health & Safety governs quite a lot, and employers need to be familiar with their requirements if they are to protect their employees and their business. Employers should consider connecting with a knowledgeable OHS partner to help them on their pathway towards compliance.
Learn more about our leading Mental Health and Behaviour Change programs today.