The mental health onus: 5 steps leaders can take to a mentally healthier workplace

While the mental health of employees is affected by more than just work, an unhealthy work environment or work incident may exacerbate mental illness

Whilst leaders are well versed on the topic of physical safety, many find themselves with blinkers on when it comes to addressing the mental state of their employees, says Stuart Taylor 

A leader’s role in managing their employees’ mental health has long been a grey area –– so complex that many leaders choose to turn a blind eye as they can feel incapable of creating change. However, Australian workplaces are beginning to feel an increasing urgency around mental health in the workplace – according to Safe Work Australia, approximately $480 million in workers’ compensation claims are for work-related mental disorders every year.

Whilst leaders are well versed on the topic of physical safety, many find themselves with blinkers on when it comes to addressing the mental state of their employees. What leaders need to understand is that whilst a worker may develop mental illness prior to or during employment, an unhealthy work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress that exacerbates or contributes to the development of mental illness. In fact, research by the Australian Human Rights Commission indicates that job stress and other work-related psychosocial hazards are emerging as the leading contributors to the burden of occupational disease and injury.

In fact, presenteeism and absenteeism as a result of mental ill-health cost Australian businesses $10.9 billion per year. In a 12-month period, 46% of employees in mentally unhealthy workplaces will have taken time off work as compared to 13% of employees in mentally healthy workplaces –– with the typical time off for a mental health-related issue being 14.8 weeks compared to 5.3 weeks for all other claims.

“Many would attribute the rise of mental health issues largely to our high-pressure, always-connected working culture that leaves little time for rest”

Many would attribute the rise of mental health issues largely to our high-pressure, always-connected working culture that leaves little time for rest. But the rate of technological advancements shows no signs of slowing down. This, therefore, means that organisations need to be proactive in building workplaces that are resilient to change and foster positive mental wellbeing.

The starting point for leaders to grapple the problem is to be clear on definitions. When the term ‘mental health’ is used, it is often thought of as a person’s level of depression or anxiety and their ability to bounce back from these conditions. So, to broaden our approach to being more holistic and integral, useful definitions are:

  • Mental health = calm, alert, focused, agile, decisive.
  • Mental distress = distressed, anxious, depressed, hostile, withdrawn or delusional.
  • Resilience = a learned ability to recognise risk, bounce back skilfully, and secure robust physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.

Positive mental health is best supported by a focus on proactive resilience initiatives that build health, happiness and performance at work, rather than the reactive treatment of illnesses. The results from our Global Resilience Study 2018 indicates the implementation of resilience strategies in the workplace increases wellbeing factors by up to 40% – this goes across a broad spectrum of lifestyle factors that include fitness, optimism, situational agility, purpose and regulation of emotion.

Resilience programs have also been shown to deliver on average a 30% reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression (up to 86% in some cases), whilst antidepressants have a 3% impact and sleep only 6%. It is clear that individuals and organisations need an integral and practical solution to mental distress.

“Positive mental health is best supported by a focus on proactive resilience initiatives that build health, happiness and performance at work, rather than the reactive treatment of illnesses”

At an organisational level, there is a clear duty of care for leaders to look after their people, minimise mental distress and assist those who are suffering. Beyond this “obligation” there is a bigger opportunity to create organisations where people thrive with full mental health and are able to enjoy the challenges associated with learning and growth.

Here are a few practical steps leaders can take to do this.

1. Lead from the top
Leaders are responsible for organisational culture, therefore, it’s vital that leaders dispel toxic workplace culture and invest in their own well-being by practising resilience strategies.

2. Encourage positive lifestyle habits
Be open to staff engaging in exercise while at work, provide healthier food options in the communal kitchen and encourage staff to take breaks.

3. Communicate purpose
Be clear on the organisational purpose and strategic direction and communicate well so employees feel invested and involved.

4. Allow employees to play to their strengths
Allow staff to grow in roles that play to their strengths.

5. Build a culture of trust
Leaders can build a trust-based culture rather than a fear-based culture through steadiness, integrity, compassion, connection and engagement.

“At an organisational level, there is a clear duty of care for leaders to look after their people, minimise mental distress and assist those who are suffering”

As much as organisations have a responsibility to their employers, it’s also important for employees to focus on their own resilience at an individual level.

Here are some proactive steps to building personal resilience and fostering positive mental health to thrive at work and in life.

  • Incorporate strong lifestyle practices –– be disciplined in establishing a daily habit of exercise, healthy nutrition, good sleep and meditation/relaxation. These practices all contribute to reducing the stress hormone cortisol (reduced distress) and increasing serotonin (mood).
  • Avoid confusion ––Be prepared to say no. Delete, delegate and prioritise. Confusion, intensity and overload are pre-conditions for mental distress.
  • Practise Situational Agility –– Learn how to reframe challenges into opportunities rather than seeing adversities. With your thoughts and emotions, “catch, check and change” to encourage more positivity and realistic optimism.
  • Find your purpose –– Finding your purpose will improve your sleep, mental health, and cognitive function for the better. Be clear on “why” you get out of bed in the morning.

When lined up against the national statistics of absenteeism and presenteeism alone, the return on investment is clear. However, beyond avoidance of these costs, the real return on investment for organisations lies in a mentally healthy workforce that operates at a level of sustainable high performance.