Workplace Mental Health Expert, Author, Trainer & International Speaker Anna Feringa, discusses stress, and more particularly, mental health in the workplace.

For many years, I have been entering workplaces, of all sizes and types, invited to gauge the mental health of the workforce and assist with management plans.

This is to help these organisations identify industry mental health issues, put in place structures and procedures to ultimately prevent, alleviate and assist unwell employees.

You may not think that this is an issue in your workforce or it may not be a priority. You share those thoughts with many of the CEOs and Executive Leadership teams I’ve met. But to give you an idea of just how endemic it is if you’re at work now, just down tools for a moment.

Look around your business and at your colleagues. If there are 100 people working at your business, twenty of the people you are looking at, right now, have a mental health issue. If your business is 500-strong, then 100 people are dealing with a mental condition.

These aren’t my statistics but those from Beyond Blue. So, with this level of injury what are businesses doing?

Well most are just ‘winging it’.

Employers are operating in a country where mental health is heavily stigmatised and governments and regulators continue to play catch-up. There is a great deal of judgement, unnecessary performance management and, as a result, increased resignations, time loss, workers’ compensation claims and well, people working when they are sick!

EML has more than 80,000 claims annually. Mental health is in the top five of all injuries EML manages and we have invested heavily in prevention, mitigation and rehabilitation to help people get their lives back. Learn more >

Managers and staff are also reluctant to ask the question – ‘Are you okay?’ out of a fear of the response and the chance of offending. In many instances ‘policy’ has killed care. People are worried if they do ask they’ll be accused of harassment, privacy breach and/or find themselves in front of HR.

Then there’s the other side of the spectrum where management is getting involved. The staff member heavily relies on the manager and they are getting burnt out. The manager becomes the carer.

Achieving balance in the workplace, supporting but supporting safely, is complex. It’s not easy. But it is important that your business has a plan.  It must be part of a logical safety system, just like the systems in place for physical injuries. With one in five workers having a mental illness at any time this makes it a priority.

So, what can you do?

When I assess any workplace the first port of call is the CEO and ELT. What are they willing to do? What are they doing? Is it even a priority?

Next, I spend time with management, managers and then team members. This allows me to see how safe people feel in their workplace and whether that is clinically endorsed. Finally, I then share these findings with the ELT. They are never good, but this is the start of the journey that all workplaces find themselves on. Better to start than ignore!

People feel unsafe, unsupported and discriminated against. The latter can include ‘positive’ discrimination where people don’t get positions because their manager decides that they aren’t mentally capable of handling that job. Why are we making that decision?

I always ask when someone makes that call for their qualifications. ‘If I clutched my chest and fell over would you make the medical determination of whether, or not, I needed an ambulance?’ They appear quite shocked and say of course not. And then they get it. Instead I suggest that when it comes to making these specific management decisions when there is a mental health issue that they get a third-party capacity assessment.

So, after the bad news is delivered comes the action.

Senior Leadership Team endorsement is critical

It allows for the implementation of appropriate and logical procedures on how someone responds to a mental health condition, where neither side is judged.

EAP – it is a tool but not the answer

Many businesses proudly tell me that they have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is a tool, but it’s not the entire answer. EAP can’t make the decision about work related adjustments that may offer relief.

By over-relying on EAP we’re decreasing managers’ abilities to have robust and personal conversations on mental health and wellness and therefore providing a safe environment for an employee to recover.

Manager training

Managers need to have the ability to help keep you mentally and physically safe. This includes assessing their capabilities and training accordingly. While everyone might abide by a safety policy and a code of conduct, are they suitably trained in dealing with mental illness?

These include:

  • what to look for
  • how to have the conversation
  • how to keep unwell people accountable
  • how to track their return to work

People will speak up sooner and receive help earlier if they believe that there could be a positive outcome, instead of stigma and potential job loss. Frontline staff need to be able to speak up and leaders need to ask more. This will see a culture change.

The results are also that people are getting better. They are keeping their jobs and recovering sooner as they essentially have less to worry about!

Just remember, as you again look around your office space, 21% of the Australian workforce has taken time off for stress related issues in the past year. These are the people who are being open about their situation. The rest of the people are having ‘mental health days’ and telling no one. If we were truly honest the rate would be around 60%. Isn’t that number of people worth having a strategy for and a conversation with?

Further resources

Heads Up

Resources, information and advice for individuals and businesses to create more mentally healthy workplaces.

Beyond Blue

Information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.

The material in these blogs is general information only. It does not take anyone’s particular circumstances into account. It is not medical, legal or financial advice. Please see EML’s Terms of Use.