The last taboo: is your organisation’s approach to mental health in the workplace failing your staff?

What if we told you that even if you have a mental health policy at your organisation, it’s likely to be woefully outdated and could be costing you dearly in reduced staff well-being, engagement and performance?

According to national mental health commissioner Professor Ian Hickie, too many Australian workplaces are taking an outdated, reactive approach to their staff’s mental health – one that’s time-consuming and fails to provide adequate support to staff.

This assertion comes in response to a recent survey of Australian workplaces that found almost three-quarters had no formal mental health policy or procedure – even though untreated mental health conditions cost Australian employers $10.9 billion each year.

Conducted by employment law firm MinterEllison, the 2016 Mental Health in the Workplace survey gathered data from 226 Australian organisations of various sizes, including private companies, government entities and not-for-profits – with some startling findings.

And with workplace mental health issues on the rise, affecting everything from low morale to high turnover, it’s more than likely that your organisation needs to take a more critical view of its mental health policy.

The last taboo

Professor Hickie says that despite workplace mental health having been firmly on the agenda for the past 15 years, it’s an area in which disappointingly little headway has been made – largely due to employer reluctance and scepticism that mental health programs will impact workplace productivity.

And that attitude is apparent in the survey’s findings, which show that depression and anxiety are present in a whopping 94 percent of workplaces – while a shocking 44 percent of respondents reported suicide or attempted suicide in their workplace over the past two years.

Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Hickie – the former CEO of beyondblue – believes there is “an overemphasis on employee assistance programs and simplistic, 1970s-style HR processes which are secretive and isolating, exacerbate the problem and discourage an open workplace conversation”.

In fact, Professor Hickie says workers who reveal mental health conditions to their managers often end up having their responsibilities reduced, which may only make things worse.

Where we’re falling short

As a result of these deficiencies in workplace mental health policy, the MinterEllison survey reveals that managers are spending more and more time dealing with staff mental health issues.

In fact, more than 57 percent of respondents said they spend around 10 percent of their time doing so – and more than half of the survey’s respondents said they were seeing an annual increase in the incidence of mental health issues amongst their teams.

But despite this, less than 40 percent of those surveyed said workplace mental health had been discussed at a board level in their organisations, and most respondents said their organisations made little to no investment in mental health and wellbeing programs.

Of those that do, the report found that the three most common strategies used to support staff mental health were confidential employee assistance programs, flexible work arrangements and providing access to mental health information. Crucially, however, actually measuring the impact and effectiveness of these strategies is rarely done.

The way forward

While 94 percent of survey respondents said they place the responsibility for fostering a mentally healthy workplace squarely with HR, leaders and managers in all areas play a critical role in supporting their staff’s mental health.

But what practical steps can you take to this effect?

Overwhelmingly, the report recommends that rather than just accessing and disseminating basic mental health information, both managers and HR need practical, hands-on training in areas such as:

  • Proactively identifying and managing high environmental risk factors and high-risk roles for mental health;
  • Management styles that minimise the potential impact on staff with mental health issues; and
  • The legal issues associated with managing mental health.

The report also suggests managers could benefit from training that helps them have conversations with staff members about their mental health, and how to determine when outside intervention is needed.

Of course, the responsibility does not fall entirely to management, with the report suggesting that initiatives like mentoring programs and staff resilience training are ways in which good mental health can be prioritised and supported at all levels in an organisation.

Would you like to find out more about creating or reviewing your NFP’s mental health policy? Read the full MinterEllison report here, or visit Heads Up for resources and practical tips to help inform the mental health policy in your organisation.

Image: _Imaji_/Flickr.

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