Mental health issues in the workplace: a 10 billion dollar problem
It is only in recent years that mental health has been discussed more openly in a workplace context – nevertheless, it is still a delicate topic and one that requires careful handling. The recent suicide of a British nurse, which received vast media coverage, is at the extreme end of the spectrum of mental health issues in a workplace context, but nevertheless underlines the potential seriousness of the issue. One common debate is the extent to which workplace stress contributes to mental illness.
One in five people are likely to be affected by mental illness. This results in six million working days lost by Australian workplaces each year due to mental illness at an economic cost to business of $10 billion. It makes business sense for employers to have plans that support the mental as well as the physical health of their employees and also demonstrates a commitment by the employer to a healthy and inclusive workplace.
The Western Australian Government, as part of their OneLifeWA suicide prevention strategy, this year asked employers to introduce mental health policies into workplaces to reduce this economic cost. WA Health Minister Helen Morton said that “suicide prevention is best achieved by everyone working together and learning to recognise the signs of depression or mental illness”.
The Federal Government’s Job Access site advises that an employer’s efforts to support the mental health of employees results in sustained productivity and reduced costs. Smart employers foster a workplace culture that promotes mutual responsibility for mental health.
At an enterprise level, employers can make a difference in the workplace by having plans that help promote and maintain mental health amongst their employees. A healthy and inclusive workplace is one which shares information, supports staff and values diversity. Employers can help to dispel myths about mental illness by promoting an accurate understanding of mental illness and its causes. Staff education and training programs can be included into induction processes or occupational health and safety training.
Mental wellness forums or activities that promote healthy practices such as physical exercise, work/ life balance, stress reduction techniques and eating a balanced diet, as well as support for initiatives such as Movember should be encouraged.
Employers can also take practical measures such as encouraging work/ life balance by offering flexible working hours or the option to work from home, promoting mental health awareness as a workplace requirement and building awareness of the risks of stress and how to recognise and reduce it.
In order to proactively promote mental well-being, many large organisations invest in early intervention and preventative strategies, such as Employee Assistance Programs, which provide a confidential service for all employees and their families to deal with problems that may be causing difficulties in their work or personal lives.
In terms of dealing with an employee with mental illness, The Federal Government’s Job Access site advises that people with a diagnosed mental illness are likely to be aware of the types of stressors that can trigger illness and that supportive workplaces should be aware of stress factors, mental illness and ways to accommodate individual needs.
People with mental health issues should be accepted in the workplace and treated fairly as we would expect those with other health conditions and disabilities to be. If a person has any type of health condition, employers should be willing to make reasonable adjustments to that person’s working conditions so that they are still able to do their job. Furthermore, it is the employer’s legal and social responsibility to ensure that the workplace is free from discrimination and harassment.
iHR advises that a staff survey can help you learn about staff mental health and issues affecting your workplace, including workload, feelings of belonging and management practices in your organisation.