There are three hallmarks that typify the best workplace mental health programs which generate optimal outcomes for organisations and their employees, according to Graeme Cowan, workplace mental wellbeing educator and board director for R U OK?.
He said workplace mental health programs should:
- Be linked to the vision and values of the organisation
- Stress the importance of leaders walking the talk of mental wellbeing, and
- Have a maximum of three mental wellbeing goals (increasing employee exercise levels should definitely be one) and associated strategies – and monitor progress against these.
Cowan observed that most organisations view mental health issues as something “extra” they have to manage.
“They typically view employee assistance programs as being their primary strategy to assist their people who may be struggling,” he said.
“They also organise activities like yoga or meditation or providing fruit bowls and healthy food to address mental wellbeing challenges.
“While there is nothing wrong with these activities, they are often done in isolation with no overarching goal or strategies.”
Mental health lead indicators and trends
Cowan also said that very few organisations have early indicators of employee distress, and usually have to rely on lag indicators such as employee turnover, EAP usage and psychological injury claims.
“It is imperative that leaders have real-time employee mood indicators,” he said.
“If Boards and senior leadership knew the size of these costs, I have no doubt it would become a top three priority in the organisation”
Boards and senior leadership should be aware that the CSIRO recently nominated “rising mental health issues” as a “megatrend” that will shape workplaces in the next 20 years.
“It is essential they know the current cost of mental ill health today,” he said.
“It is very rare to encounter an organisation that knows how much mental-ill health costs their organisation.”
The total cost for this includes direct and indirect workers compensation premiums, EAP, absenteeism, presenteeism, stress leave and employee turnover – which Cowan said is 50 per cent greater with high work stress.
“If Boards and senior leadership knew the size of these costs, I have no doubt it would become a top three priority in the organisation,” he said.
“I believe it is imperative for the Board and senior leadership to have a real-time indicator of employee mood,” said Cowan, who explained that this rating would need to be anonymous but could be broken down to groups no smaller than 20 people (to protect confidentiality).
He predicted that, in the future, leadership behaviour will be monitored much more closely and leadership bonus schemes which contain a significant KPI linked to employee wellbeing.
And although digital disruption is a big contributor to employee distress, Cowan was confident that digital resources will help to monitor and improve employee wellbeing.
He explained that this could include 24/7 leadership courses to help create more caring and resilient teams and proactive employee strategies that prevent a psychological injury for occurring.
“Perhaps we will even see a transition in title from the loathsome human capital director to the chief mood officer”
3 practical steps can HR take to improve mental health in the workplace
Increasingly, Cowan said that HR will find that wellbeing issues are not just WHS issues but also straddle leadership and organisational development.
“It won’t be long (with the aid of AI) before senior leadership will be able to see the correlation between employee mood and productivity,” he said.
“I see a day where employee mood will be on every CEO’s agenda and by definition be on every HR director’s agenda [because] positive employee mood will be acknowledged as a sustainable competitive advantage.
“Perhaps we will even see a transition in title from the loathsome human capital director to the chief mood officer.”
He said the three most important things HR can do to improve mental health in their organisation are:
- Make their own wellbeing and productivity a priority by being a learning animal – and walking the talk
- Coach and mentor leadership teams about the behaviours that lead to increased team vitality, trust and learning
- Start exploring ways to monitor employee mood in real time (the once a year employee engagement survey will soon be extinct).