Why mental health in the workplace in HR’s hot potato

Mental health in the workplace is one of the most pressing and complex issues that HR leaders are dealing with every day

Mental health in the workplace is one of the most pressing and complex issues that HR leaders are dealing with every day, according to international law firm MinterEllison.

Recent research conducted by the firm highlighted the sheer prevalence of mental health issues in Australian workplaces – and in most organisations, this responsibility falls to the HR department.

It found that more than 80 per cent of HR professionals spend one-quarter of their time managing staff with mental health issues.

Also important are the types of mental health issues presenting in the workplace, according to Samantha Betzien, a partner in human resources and industrial relations at MinterEllison.

Anxiety and depression (both 94 per cent) are the most common, but Betzien also noted that 44 per cent of survey respondents reported suicide or an attempted suicide in their workplace in the past two years.

“HR professionals are on the frontline here and need to be appropriately equipped to deal with these high-risk situations,” said Betzien.

Many organisations (74 per cent) also don’t have specific policies or procedures to identify and manage staff mental health, and many made no or little investment  (up to $20,000 per annum) in preventative mental health and wellbeing initiatives.

“So organisations just don’t have the tools in place to manage these issues in the best possible way,” said Betzien.

The survey found most organisations (65 per cent) do not currently measure the impact of staff mental health issues on their organisations, while only 38 per cent have discussed staff mental health issues at Board level at least once.

“These findings highlight a real opportunity for HR leaders to drive change in how mental health issues are resourced and managed in their organisations.”

“Organisations just don’t have the tools in place to manage these issues in the best possible way”

The MinterEllison Managing Mental Health in the Workplace 2016 survey found that there has been a 56 per cent year-on-year increase in the number of mental health cases in the workplace.

As such, Betzien predicted an increasing focus on mental health as a work health and safety issue.

“This could lead to increased activity from safety regulators, including prosecutions where employers have not met their work health and safety obligations when managing mental health issues in the workplace,” she said.

“As awareness increases, I think we’ll see this become much more of a focus for boards and senior management.

“Hopefully that will result in more resources for managing mental health in the workplace, more training for HR leaders and senior managers and more comprehensive wellness programs to give staff the tools to manage their stress levels and overall mental health.”

The three most common strategies reported by organisations to maintain and promote health and wellbeing of staff at work were:

  1. access to a confidential employee assistance program (91 per cent)
  2. flexible work arrangements (87 per cent)
  3. provision of access to relevant information (59 per cent).

Betzien said there is an obvious ‘value driven’ basis for employers to be motivated to provide support to employees suffering from a mental illness but there is also a clear economic benefit.

This was highlighted by a 2014 study carried out by Beyond Blue and PwC which showed that for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate mental health action there is on average $2.30 in benefits in terms of reducing in absenteeism, increased productivity and reduction in workers compensation claims.

“In other words, managing mental health well is not only the right thing to do to ensure the health and safety of your people but it will also have a positive impact on the overall success of the organisation,” said Betzien.

“You can’t effectively manage what you don’t know about”

Casting a critical lens over the organisation to identify key risk factors and high-risk roles is a first step HR executives can take to make a meaningful difference to mental health in the workplace.

“You can’t effectively manage what you don’t know about,” said Betzien.

“When dealing with a staff member with a mental health issue, be proactive and act early to put in place steps to manage the risk including getting the right medical advice where appropriate.”

A ‘head in the sand’ approach will only exacerbate the issues and reduce the risk of a good outcome for the employee involved and the organisation as a whole, according to Betzien.

Education and training of senior leaders to understand and manage mental health issues are also key.

“It is not an easy issue to deal with and it really isn’t fair for managers to be in a position where they are facing complex mental health issues but without the training and knowledge to know how best to manage a particular situation,” said Betzien.

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