The dos (and don’ts) of improving workplace mental health

The dos (and don’ts) of improving workplace mental health

Employers are often concerned about the grey areas when managing an employee with a mental health condition, writes Joydeep Hor, who explains that leaders can take a number of steps to improve workplace mental health outcomes

Workplace mental health issues can have a resounding impact on productivity, performance and culture within workplaces of all sizes and in any industries. The effect that mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can have on business is estimated as being approximately $11 billion per year. This calculation is based on figures for absenteeism, presenteeism, reduced work performance, increased turnover rates and compensation claims.

Employers and employees may approach workplace mental health from a different perspective. While employers may see it in terms of workplace health and safety obligations and productivity, employees tend to be more focused on the importance of good emotional health stemming from a respectful workplace.

This demonstrates that while the focus for many employers may be on achieving compliance and on avoiding disputes, employees see their workplace as something that is closely linked to their own mental health.

Responding at the workplace level
There is no “one size fits all” approach to implementing strategies that promote a mentally healthy workplace. Common organisational responses include:

  • Employee assistance programs;
  • Flexible work arrangements;
  • Policies which address mental health issues; and/or
  • Mental health leave (via personal leave and/or the implementation of mental health days).

These types of strategies are designed to assist employees to manage their mental health issues and, more broadly, to enhance the prospect of a healthy workplace.

On a more individual level, a commitment by employers to properly addressing the mental health issues of their employees is fundamental, not only for employers in meeting their legislative obligations but also for employees to flourish in their employment.

Employers should ensure that the needs of employees who are experiencing mental health issues are understood, that the impact of workplace practices are monitored, and that employees receive the support they require. This may necessitate adjustments being agreed to between the employer and employee, and efforts being made to keep under review workload distributions, hours and leave arrangements.

“Performance management and organisational change are two other areas where mental health concerns often arise”

Communication is key
A business needs to communicate a clear message regarding its commitment to a mentally healthy workplace. The communication of a genuine commitment on the part of management to supporting employees who experience mental health issues can have positive effects.

For example, it can help to facilitate an earlier return to work where an employee might otherwise feel unable to return to work because they perceive the workplace to be unsupportive. Where managers have been effectively trained and can provide meaningful contact for such employees, this can enhance the return to work process.

Performance management and organisational change are two other areas where mental health concerns often arise. A clear communication strategy can contribute to ensuring that any performance management process is managed in a way that is sensitive to the employee’s circumstances.

In addition, providing employees with realistic information about organisational change, can reduce psychological stress, uncertainty and absenteeism. Research also demonstrates that leadership support is crucial throughout change – by relaying the organisation’s vision, goals and the reasons for the change, a leader can inspire people to be a part of the change process and feel more secure during a period change.

The dos (and don’ts) of improving workplace mental health for leaders
We recommend that employers consider the following dos and don’ts in their approaches to workplace mental health:

Do:

  • Observe and monitor changes in employees’ behaviour
  • Foster help-seeking
  • Work constructively with employees who have mental health issues
  • Show empathy to employees requiring support
  • Create open channels of communication

Don’t:

  • Tolerate a poor workplace culture
  • Rely on performance management as a means of managing mental health issues
  • Make assumptions about the perceived capabilities or weaknesses of employees with mental health issues
  • Treat employees differently as a result of their mental health status