What is a mentally healthy workplace? Before we answer that question, let’s address the question of, what is mental health?
What is mental health?
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
However, normally when someone mentions their mental health, it is in a negative context; for example, when talking about anxiety, depression or something that’s ‘just not good for my mental health’.
It’s perhaps not surprising then, that mental health is quite possibly the most misunderstood and underrated asset human beings have. We take it for granted and we create the most challenging conditions, both physiologically and psychologically, for it to successfully persist.
Mental health is fundamental to every relationship we have, including those with the most influence over our happiness and wellbeing: relationships with family, friends, and the people we work with, and for.
Work – the self-identity it affords us, and the purpose we express by carrying it out – can have a love-hate relationship with our mental health.
Achieving goals, working alongside colleagues, getting a promotion, for example, can all be positive for our mental health and wellbeing. Conversely, failing to achieve our goals, feeling isolated from colleagues, or being subjected to unreasonable demands from a manager, can be demotivating, and negative for our mental health and wellbeing.
Furthermore, for people with complex mental health issues, the effects are amplified, with participation in workplaces so important but the misunderstanding and/or stigmatisation of mental illness so commonplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had predictable and unforeseen effects on the mental health of Australians. Despite the terrible harm, it has had one perversely positive impact – Australian governments, businesses and communities have never been so aware of the value of mental health.
In this article we address mentally health workplaces as a key focus for not just worker and organisational performance, but for the success of society.
Because, as controllable contexts, guided by regulation and best practice, organisations can raise awareness of what mental health is, and what the benefits of good mental health can be. Workers take that knowledge to customer meetings, the local footy club, online, to social networks, and home to families.
Workplaces are a key domain for addressing mental health at scale in Australia.
So, what is a mentally healthy workplace?
Perspectives are as diverse as the places people work, the cultures being expressed and the language people use.
Also, however, that there are clearly united views on the attributes of a mentally healthy workplace.
The World Economic Forum highlights steps organisations can take to create a healthy workplace, including:
- Awareness of the workplace environment and how it can be adapted to promote better mental health for different employees.
- Learning from the motivations of organisational leaders and employees who have taken action.
- Not reinventing wheels by being aware of what other companies who have taken action have done.
- Understanding the opportunities and needs of individual employees, in helping to develop better policies for workplace mental health.
- Awareness of sources of support and where people can find help.
Beyond Blue identifies nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace:
- Prioritising mental health: Provide mental health education for all levels of staff to raise awareness, increase understanding and encourage open discussion.
- Trusting, fair & respectful culture: Provide employees at all levels with skills to interact with honesty and respect with colleagues and customers, clients and the public.
- Open & honest leadership: Employ effective leadership to give employees a sense of shared purpose in the goals of the organisation.
- Good job design: Match job roles to people’s skills and abilities, ensure they are physically safe and offer working arrangements that suit employees.
- Workload management: Set tasks that can be accomplished successfully in a reasonable time, using readily available resources.
- Employee development: Offer an environment where employees have regular two-way feedback and are encouraged, acknowledged and rewarded.
- Inclusion & influence: Arrange for employees to have control of the way they work and input to the important decisions of the organisation.
- Work/Life balance: Recognise the importance of work/life balance and provide employees the opportunity to balance the demands of work, family and personal life.
- Mental health support: Ensure that managers and staff are responsive to employees’ mental health conditions, regardless of cause and that adjustments to work and counselling support are available.
Importantly, building a mentally healthy workplace is a shared responsibility of organisation leaders, managers and workers as well as the customers and stakeholders with which they interact.
The obligation on businesses is not to ‘make’ employees mentally healthy; rather to create the right conditions in which workers can capably do their jobs, and the business succeeds as a result.
With most Australians working from home right now, businesses are facing new challenges and opportunities. We commonly talk about work-life balance but those distinctions, already blurry, got a lot blurrier over the last few months.
However, the mutual responsibility workers and business leaders have to protect, and nurture, good mental health are very clear. And the benefits evidenced.
The business case for investing in mentally healthy workplaces.
Beyond the obvious moral obligation to provide a mentally healthy workplace, and enjoy the social and cultural rewards it creates, there are hard numbers to support investment.
- The estimated cost to business every year from negative mental health impacts is $13 billion (Mental Health Australia and KPMG, 2018).
- Stress-related workers’ compensation claims have doubled in recent years, costing over $10 billion each year (Medibank Private (2008), The Cost of Workplace Stress in Australia).
- There is a 500% return on productivity for supporting mental health at work (Cowan G, Best Practice in Managing Mental Health, cited Human Rights Commission).
Investing in mental health delivers financial returns to the company and its shareholders. It therefore needs to be a key metric upon which executive teams are measured, and in the company’s reporting: not just the measurement of negative impacts, such as absenteeism, but through more sophisticated measurement of the links between good mental health and, for example, productivity.
How to build a mentally healthy workplace.
There are many resources, service providers and policies to assist business. So many in fact, in can be overwhelming.
To get started, here are five important steps to take:
- Raise understanding of mental health as a positive asset linked to personal and organisational performance.
- Build awareness of good behaviours, as well as those that undermine good mental health.
- Design jobs, spaces, and teams for success, not failure.
- Ensure all managers are trained and skilled to listen and respond effectively to workers seeking support, as well as manage and develop teams appropriately.
- Incentivise good practice. From the boardroom to the customer interface, measure mental health and link it to performance benefits.
For all these steps, leaders need to co-design policy, resources and initiatives with the people who will use them, and, in the settings specific to the industry and team’s work environment.