The most direct effect that workplaces have on employee health and wellbeing is through the occurrence of injuries or illness due to work. Our workplaces affect the types of risks involved. Workplaces with high levels of physical work (for example, those that involve lifting, carrying, using machinery or transport) pose different risks to workplaces where demands are more likely to be mental or emotional (for example, those that involve high levels of advice and customer service). While the type of work affects the injury risks in a workplace, some characteristics common to all workplaces influence the workplace health risks to employees.
A mentally healthy workplace has benefits for everyone – employees and employers. But what do these working environments look like and how can businesses create them?
We spend the bulk of our waking lives at work and it would be great if that meant we could all work in an environment where we felt valued, acknowledged, respected and supported.
Regrettably, this is not always the case. Job stress puts many of us at risk of developing a mental health issue and figures suggest almost half of us feel our workplace is mentally unhealthy.
But this is not just a problem for employees. Recent research suggests that mental illness costs the Australian economy an estimated $20 billion annually in lost productivity and labour participation. Mental illness is now the leading reason for absenteeism, with one in five of us taking time off due to mental health issues in the past year.
A leading consultant psychiatrist, Dr Sam Harvey, reminds us of the complexity of the interaction between individuals, their coping and resilience skills and their jobs in the workplace. Harvey indicates people working in stressful situations and having sound employee resilience and coping mechanisms are critical but not all people are wired the same way. Without these mature coping mechanisms, work can become a risk factor for developing mental health conditions.
And having good coping mechanism is not the only answer to avoiding workplace mental health issues; there is a close link between the individual and the job they are doing typified in the following factors:
· problems with the actual job
· having difficult relationships with others or managers in the workplace
· organisational and even internal political factors
· other personal issues in the employee’s life
· some individual factors, such as personality, coping style and level of resilience.
The following provides some indication of the problems in the workplace linked to mental health conditions:
· high job strain – where a job has high demand and there is limited or low control over the work
· lack of appropriate reward for effort – not only in terms of pay but also in recognition for work having been completed
· lack of organisational justice or fairness – this refers to the way information and resources does and does not flow within an organisation
· job insecurity and downsizing – mental health conditions can persist long after an event and appear even in those who keep their jobs
· interpersonal problems and being bullied – bullying is now seen as a risk factor for depression and is usually accompanied with an organisational climate allowing it to fester.
Why act to improve mental health at work?
Harvey indicates workplaces are an ideal forum to think about prevention of mental health issues involving a combination of reducing known risk factors and increasing resilience.
But taking action requires leadership; honesty, courage, effort, compassion, time, appropriate resourcing and even funding to bring about sustainable change. This would need to be supported with policies and procedures focusing health, wellbeing, bullying and harassment linked to workplace health and safety.
An organisation developed jointly by beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, called “Heads Up”, calls on business leaders to make a commitment and to take acting in their workplaces. It also encourages everyone in the workplace to play their part in creating a mentally healthy working environment, take care of their own mental health and look out for their colleagues.
Research by Heads Up points to businesses that choose to make employee mental health a priority record the following benefits:
· a reduction in the number of sick days people take
· an increase in respect for leadership from employee
· a more positive perception of the workplace by employees
· an increase in productivity and fewer injury claims.
What sort of urgent direct support is available for my team members?
There may be times when a member of your team needs professional help. To support businesses, there are professional providers who offer an employee assistance program. Employee assistance program (EAP) providers offer specialist assistance for employees who are seeking help in dealing with personal or family issues such as personal/ emotional stress, relationship and family issues, grief and loss, financial or legal concerns and career transition/life transition.
Many EAP providers also can assist with more serious or traumatic matters by providing specialist and rapid response assistance when a critical incident or trauma affects your business and you need immediate effective support for your team. Examples could include natural disaster (e.g. floods, earthquakes, fire, tsunami,
physical and sexual assault, robbery, armed robbery and violent crimes, sudden or unexpected death including suicide or attempted suicide or witnessing a traumatic event.
Businesses benefit from placing the same emphasis on mental health and safety as is the case for physical health and safety. To assist, business owners and managers need to look for triggers, like stress and poor absenteeism, and consider actions to overcome or lessen these issues. In addition, having policies, practices and program about mental health and support for them encourage a positive change in how team member perceive their own health and wellbeing. These all demonstrate a commitment by a business and its owners to reducing the stigma attached to mental health and ultimately lead to a mentally healthier workplace.
Please note that the above information is provided as comment and should not be relied on as a substitute for detailed professional advice.