You need to know how to manage workplace mental health

mental health
Stephanie Hunt

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written on April 13, 2017

It is almost certain that workplace mental health problems are costing your organisation and your industry as a whole. Untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces an estimated $10.9 billion per year, including $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims, according to beyondblue’s State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report from 2014. And these numbers fail to take into account more insidious costs such as the potential damage to corporate culture.

Responsibility for the management of workplace mental health usually falls to the HR department, but it is not always easy to know how best to tackle such a large and complex – while at the same time deeply personal – problem.

Professor Andrew Noblet from Deakin Business School has been studying organisational behaviour and employee wellbeing for over 20 years. His research suggests that effective workplace mental health management combines three strategies. Employers must first be ready with interventions to address individual mental health problems, regardless of the cause. They must also have in place strategies to better prepare the organisation as a whole. These include both mental health literacy programs that improve people’s ability to recognise the symptoms of depression and anxiety in the workplace and stress prevention programs focused on reducing work-related risk factors.

Stigma of mental health issues

Workplace interventions to directly deal with individual mental health problems as and when they arise seems like the most straightforward solution to adopt. Surely it’s enough to outsource to a counselling service and make employees aware of the resource?

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. Clinical psychologist, Dr Jay Spence explains. “One in five Australian workers suffer from a mental health condition each year, yet only one in 20 access the employee counselling service,” he says. People tend to downplay their stress and worry about the time off and possible stigma attached to seeking “therapy”, so many workplace mental health problems go untreated.

New technologies are offering employers more options when it comes to providing individual mental health interventions. Online health startup, Uprise, which is headed by Spence, offers a system that combines online and in-app training with a mental health coach via phone or videochat. The system capitalises on growing evidence that online treatments perform consistently with face-to-face therapies. The hope is that the ability to login at a time and place that suits the employee will overcome concerns about time and social stigma.

ReachOut Australia, a leading online mental health organisation for young people, has recently launched two new apps that enable young people to independently manage anxiety and stress. ReachOut Breathe uses simple visuals to reduce the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety by slowing down the heart rate. ReachOut WorryTime helps users control anxiety by scheduling worry so that it is confined to a specific time of day.

These offerings herald the development of technologies that are less costly for employers, both in terms of upfront investment and employee downtime, while offering employees greater privacy and control in managing their mental health.

Mental health literacy

Most people will encounter mental illness in their workplace over the course of their career.

A successful mental health literacy program equips managers and peers to recognise the symptoms of depression and anxiety and reduces the stigma associated with mental health concerns. It can provide a more supportive environment for staff members under strain, helps other staff to better deal with the mental health concerns of their direct reports and peers and may well encourage help-seeking and early intervention to minimise impacts on both the individual and the organisation.

Noblet has been involved in mental health literacy interventions, primarily in policing, and has discovered the benefits extend well beyond increased recognition. “What we find is that these programs open up lines of communication around what is contributing to stress. It creates an environment where people are more prepared to talk about what is helping and hindering their mental health.”

Mentor training is emerging as an effective tool for improving mental health literacy.

(For a story on how mentoring can transform a career, read our article.)

SuperFit Mates is a program run by workplace psychology specialists Communicorp on behalf of SuperFriend. The peer-support mentoring program is designed to build a cadre of workplace mentors trained to recognise and respond to mental health issues. The program started in 2015, and has so far delivered to just under a dozen large organisations.

“The program creates a front line of people who can intervene, provide peer support and resources and follow up to help people move forward,” says communicorp director and partner, Dr Laura Kirby.

SuperFit Mates is specifically designed to lift mental health literacy. However, any mentoring program can be adapted to improve such literacy.

The Australian Veterinary Association’s 2015/16 mentoring program, designed by mentoring specialists Art of Mentoring was primarily established to help new veterinary graduates to transition into work. The association was acutely aware of the mental health issues that may arise as a result of isolation and unexpected workplace issues, a concern supported by the unusually high rate of suicide in the profession.

“The mentor training program was adapted to provide mentors with the tools to recognise possible mental health issues,” says Melissa Richardson, director of Art of Mentoring. “While the program had the broad industry objective of supporting new graduates, it was also able to build mental health literacy skills among a group of experienced vets.”

With mentoring programs increasingly prevalent in Australian organisations, there is an opportunity for HR departments to adapt these programs to increase the ability of managers and peers to recognise and deal with depression and anxiety.

Stress prevention programs

Workforce mental health is affected by a wide variety of factors, many of which have nothing to do with the employer. However, research has attributed 13.2 per cent of depression in men and 17.2 per cent of depression in women directly to job strain. So, in many cases, the employer has direct control over mental health outcomes.

It is here that objectives merge with plain old good management. “It’s important that we don’t segregate specific mental health programs from more mainstream, work-based strategies that can have a positive influence on the satisfaction and wellbeing of employees,” says Noblet.

Mentoring programs are one mainstream tool that, while designed to meet unrelated objectives, can work in the background to help staff to deal more effectively with stress.

The secret ingredient within any effective mentoring program is support. Spence, who is an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder, explains, “One of the things we know about stress is that the size of the trauma doesn’t matter. The factor most likely to impact the level of stress a person feels is the amount
of support that person perceives they have.”

In other words, how supported a person feels can make a crucial difference in whether stressful workplace situations escalate into mental health problems.

Art of Mentoring has run over 100 formal mentoring programs primarily in large industry associations and major corporations, places with increasingly demanding and competitive working environments. “Regardless of the primary objective of the mentoring program, one thing that is reported consistently is increased self confidence,” says Richardson. “We know from social psych literature that self confidence and self efficacy make people better equipped to cope with stressful situations.”

For many HR departments the idea that mentoring programs can help inoculate an organisation against poor mental health outcomes may not result in a change in strategy. These organisations may already have mentoring programs in place to achieve a wide variety of developmental objectives. But it is worthwhile to be aware that these programs may also be having a more generalised effect on the organisation’s overall sense of wellbeing.

Responsibility for an organisation’s mental health is a heavy burden for today’s HR departments. As organisations become increasingly competitive and KPIs become ever more difficult to achieve, we have to expect stress levels to increase. The bad news is that simply providing an outsourced counselling service, while useful for some, is not providing the comprehensive solution this complex problem demands. The good news is that new technologies and known good management practices can provide some of the answers.

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