Creating a safe workplace is about focusing on more than just physical safety. It’s about ensuring the prevalence of mental health safety. 

Nearly 20% of Australians are currently affected by a mental illness or will be in the next 12 months. While only 3% will be affected by a severe mental illness, while the majority will remain fully fit for work.

Imagine if one in five employees in your workforce were affected by a physical injury or condition in that same timeframe?

With these statistics in mind, do you feel that your organisation’s safety management system is placing enough emphasis on identifying and preventing mental health risks?

I’ve seen organisations spend a lot of time, resources and money in ensuring there are good policies and processes in physical workplace safety- it is much easier to identify the risks, benefits, and associated costs. But what about the mental health risks to workplace safety? For example, even back in 2014, PWC research for Beyond Blue showed that approximately $4.7b is lost annually by Australian businesses as a result of absenteeism related to mental illness, while $6.1b is lost due to presenteeism related to mental illness. Just imagine what those figures have increased to in the COVID era.

My skillset as a psychologist and employment lawyer makes it clear to me that recognising mental health risks and focusing on early intervention to address them greatly benefits both the organisation and its employees. Despite this, most managers I encounter in my training sessions for iHR Australia report never receiving any training in this area.

This is perhaps why many managers faced with mental health challenges in the workplace can sometimes feel like they are walking on a tightrope balanced over a canyon of discrimination, privacy concerns and care for the employee on one side versus the need to comply with safety laws and company performance standards on the other.

How to walk the tightrope of mental health safety

IHR’s training helps managers walk that tightrope by providing an approach that balances these competing legal and human concerns, and shows manager’s the R U OK? conversation skills needed to handle this matter in a professional and supportive way.

We talk about how to handle questions around mental health and fitness for work in the context of performance management, and in situations where there are no performance concerns but we want to express our care and support for the employee.

Taking this early intervention approach to mental health in the workplace can not only help to reduce the financial costs and safety risks referred to above, but can also help to build a supportive workplace culture that emphasises diversity and inclusion.

In today’s difficult recruitment market where it can be difficult to find the right people, building a workplace culture of this nature can be a key part of an employer’s brand and value proposition to potential employees.

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About the Author

Steven Booker is an experienced business and counselling psychologist with a combination of mental health, HR and employment law knowledge that has helped many organisations and managers resolve, mediate, investigate and crisis manage complex mental illness, stress, conflict, organisational change and workplace critical incidents.

He is the co-author of the Portner Press “Mental Health at Work” guide for managers and HR professionals. A highlight from recent years was Steven’s provision of mental health in the workplace training to Google in Sydney.

Steven has helped a wide range of clients with distressed, in conflict, ill and injured workers. His focus is on helping employees and employers resolve situations with empathy, fairness and non-discriminatory outcomes. He does this by providing a mixture of training, coaching, mediation, employee counselling, proactive advice to managers, critical incident management, outplacement, team building, and cultural/team reviews.

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