Data compiled by the Workplace Mental Health Institute indicates that stress-related workers’ compensation claims are costing the economy over $10 billion every year while work pressure, harassment and bullying accounts for around 75% of all psychological injury claims.

Shifting attitudes; changing times

Workplace mental health is a serious and growing concern for workplaces and their employees. While the WHO now acknowledges the connection between employees’ mental health and workplace productivity, employers are also beginning to realise the importance of nurturing workplace wellness as a means to become an employer of choice in a competitive market.

There has been a shift in recent years at a government level with a realisation that workplace mental health is not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but there is a real economic benefit to nurturing healthy workplaces. The Productivity Commission has been asked by the Federal Government to investigate the role of mental health in the Australian economy. It is a significant step that can potentially improve outcomes for millions of people.

Also, employees are starting to demand different things from their workplaces and employers are recognising they have to change to attract talent. Employees are demanding to work in environments where they feel their voice is heard and their work is meaningful. And where they feel there’s a really strong culture.

The costs of not getting it right

With more than 12 million people spending a third of their week at work, unhealthy workplaces can quickly have a negative impact on workers’ mental wellbeing. Research by Beyond Blue has shown that having a mentally healthy workplace is second only to pay when employees are looking for a new job.

Unreasonable demands, lack of role clarity and a failure to tackle discrimination and bullying are just some of the many risk factors employees might look for. On the other hand, employees thrive when they feel their voices are heard and they’re contributing to something meaningful—and this improved state of mental wellbeing goes well beyond the office door.

What are the challenges for Australian employers right now?

Workplaces have been focusing on the importance of physical safety for many years –occupational death rates and serious injuries have been falling year-on-year. But, because psychological safety is still a relatively new concept, workplaces are still discovering how to make change effectively.

The biggest mistake companies make is focusing on mental health for a short period. We don’t do that for physical safety and it needs to become part of the way we do business. Or, organisations sometimes put out communications around workplace mental health, which encourages people to speak up, but then managers don’t have the relevant training and tools to respond appropriately. So, the employee has a bad experience, and that leads to mistrust.

Larger organisations are also challenged by trying to get the message out to the whole organisation. Sometimes we see good leadership intent, but that intent doesn’t make its way down to mid-manager level. Meanwhile, leaders of smaller organisations struggle for the resources and capacity to take it seriously among their other duties.

What a healthy workplace should look like:

Make information readily available among staff

Knowledge is essential to raising awareness of mental health issues and the risks that unhealthy working environments can pose to mental wellbeing. So, it’s important to take steps to ensure staff across an organisation have easy access to the information they need to drive change. There are many online resources available to help managers and leaders achieve this objective. Sending out links to teams and making documents available in staff break-out areas could be a great place to start.

Ensure expectations around role responsibilities are aligned

At a time when many organisations are moving away from the traditional, rigid job description model, managers should offer ongoing clarity to workers around their role requirements and expectations, as well as any changes. Whether it’s through regular one-on-one catch-ups, informal discussions or team meetings, all these steps could offer the sense of meaning and support employees need to fulfil their job requirements most effectively.

Make anti-bullying part of the culture   

In the workplace, bullying and inappropriate behaviour can take many different forms, which means not everyone can recognise these behaviours when they see them. Create greater awareness of the different types of bullying and inappropriate behaviours and ensure there are clear policies in place for reporting and responding to complaints.

Actively promote positive mental health and wellbeing

Recognising and responding to bad behaviours is incredibly important to improving workplace mental health. But, there are various ways to proactively create an all-round positive working environment. Some of these include developing manager capabilities around career development, promoting team collaboration and participation in social activities, and recognising the value of work as well as celebrating specific achievements.

Combat stigma

It’s one thing to put strategies and procedures in place to recognise and respond to workplace mental health issues, but it counts for nothing unless staff are prepared to speak out, honestly and openly. Set the example by encouraging leaders to speak up about mental health risks, as well as endorsing activities and events aimed at reducing stigma.