The prevalence of mental health problems is undeniable, and so are the effects on performance. How can employers help to make the workplace a happier and healthier place?
The battle for mental health continues to rage on, both in Australia and worldwide. A staggering one in five Australians experience some form of mental illness each year, and Beyondblue says around one million adults have depressive symptoms, and over two million suffer from anxiety.
According to The World Health Organisation “Five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental problems (major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol use and obsessive-compulsive disorders). These disorders – together with anxiety, depression and stress – have a definitive impact on any working population.”
The impact of mental health problems on businesses is very real. The extent to which people are able to focus their efforts, collaborate effectively, invest energy and make good decisions is unquestionably affected by their mental fitness. Diminished work performance, morale and engagement, high rates of absenteeism and lost productivity are common and costly organisational consequences of mental illness.
Leaders are wise to recognise both their obligations and the opportunities that come from investing in the mental health of their people. In Australia, every employer has a legal obligation to provide a work environment free of risk to health and safety. When you add in the factors of productivity and performance, enabling mental health through the workplace is a wise investment.
The role of employers
Employers can make a difference in three critical ways; protect, educate and support their team. To protect people from mental and physical harm, leaders and employees should be educated about how to recognise mental illness and where help is available. Support should then be provided to help employees manage the impacts of mental illness and access the help they need.
Most importantly, employers need to ensure the experiences people have at work impact positively on their mental health and well-being. To do this, a respectful and compassionate workplace culture that inspires people to look after themselves and one another is necessary.
Lead by example
Business consulting firm EY provide a great example of the ways employers can make a difference. The program “r u ok?”, which launched in October 2016, aims to end the stigma of mental illness and connects employees to the help they need. EY appoint employee champions, host virtual events, provide e-learning programs, enable peer-to-peer support and offer follow-up services.
Dr. Sandra Turner, the leader of the EY “r u ok?” program believes communication is the key. “Success has come from leadership speaking to, and supporting, mental health care. They’ve given permission for people to come forward, and as they do, we have resources they can plug into,” she says. Turner thinks the most critical aspects of the program’s success since its launch in October 2016 is the culture of diversity and inclusion it promotes. “We need to have the right culture – one where people trust that coming forward about their struggle with mental health will not affect their job.”
Employers can also play a powerful role in shifting the underlying ignorance that drives the stigma associated with mental illness. Share facts, encourage people to ask questions and seek the information they need. The more hidden mental illness remains, the more people will continue to believe that it is shameful and needs to be concealed.
Ben Congleton, the CEO of a US based technology firm, recently found himself in the twitter spotlight for all of the right reasons. When a member of his team sent an email saying she’d be out of the office for a couple of days due to mental health reasons, Ben responded by thanking her for helping “cut through the stigma” of mental health.
In an interview with MONEY Magazine, Congleton said “We built this organisation with this culture of where this kind of talk is no big deal. I think that started normalising mental health as an actual health issue within our organisation. So many people live in fear of disclosing mental health issues at work,” says Congleton. “In many ways, that fear makes those mental health issues worse.”
Karen Gately, a founder of HR Consultancy Ryan Gately.