New research shows that seven in 10 Australians wouldn’t tell their employer about a mental health condition. Why do employees feel so unsafe to speak up in the workplace and how can employers empower them?
New research has revealed concerning statistics about mental health in the workplace.
Seven in 10 Australians wouldn’t tell their employer about their mental health condition, according to the study, which was conducted by Way Ahead, the Mental Health Association NSW. It surveyed 2000 people from across Australia – half with experience of mental health issues and half without.
Alarmingly, only seven per cent said that workplaces always provided a safe environment for employees to ask for help. Further, 64 per cent said they would hide a mental health challenge for fear of discrimination and 38 per cent reported having been treated unfairly after disclosing a condition.
Dr Zena Burgess, CEO, Australian Psychological Society, says these statistics are “cause for alarm”.
“We all have mental health challenges. It’s something that constantly ebbs and flows. So, if people feel it’s something they need to mask at work, not only does that have personal implications for them, but it also leads to bottom-line impacts and could mar your company’s productivity agenda,” says Dr Burgess.
The report also found that 15 per cent of people had never sought help from an employer and 18 per cent had waited three years before doing so.
Creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel they can disclose their mental health challenges is not only the right thing to do in order to support your teams, it’s also vital in meeting your psychosocial safety obligations as an employer.
So what are some common mistakes that employers are making? And how can HR help them to do better?
Creating the wrong environment
Employers’ mistakes usually fall into two categories, says Dr Amanda Ferguson, organisational psychologist and host of the Psych for Life podcast.
The first is creating an environment conducive to poor mental health, where workers feel unheard, overloaded and unsafe to speak up. This may exacerbate existing mental health challenges, or even provoke them.
“Many workplaces have a culture of burn and churn,” says Dr Ferguson. “Employers seem to think, ‘We’ll just replace our employees once they’re worn out.’”
Not all overloading of workers is intentional. For example, an employer might offer extra responsibilities, thinking it would be a great opportunity for someone without realising they’re overwhelming the employee.
Or, the employer might not supply the right resources, says Dr Ferguson.
“The company might be saying, ‘We’re giving you all the tea and coffee you can drink,’ but the staff are saying, ‘We need a better accounting system, or more ergonomic chairs.’”
“Too often I see managers hide behind HR thereby letting down the organisation and their employees, and missing an opportunity for development and learning themselves.” – Dr Zena Burgess, CEO, Australian Psychological Society
The problem is compounded when employees don’t feel safe to speak up – whether they’re overloaded, or simply want to exercise a right, such as getting time in lieu for having worked overtime, Dr Ferguson adds.
In some cases, this lack of safety may be the direct result of condemnation, such as a manager speaking negatively about an employee who refuses extra responsibilities.
In others, it may be a perception based on a manager’s conduct.
“The boss might be telling their team, ‘Yes, of course, you can leave on time,’ but not modelling that behaviour,” says Dr Ferguson.
Failing to respond appropriately to mental health issues
The second mistake employers make is failing to act appropriately when issues arise.
One of the most common is insufficient training of managers, says Dr Ferguson. Consequently, managers might be, at best, ill-equipped to detect and respond to mental health issues, and, at worst, critical of staff experiencing challenges.
“Team leaders and managers themselves need to upskill to have personally confronting conversations about mental health,” says Dr Burgess. “It’s not the sole role of HR, but HR can be the coaches. Too often I see managers hide behind HR thereby letting down the organisation and their employees, and missing an opportunity for development and learning themselves.”
Dr Ferguson says other mistakes include failing to see mental health as an aspect of diversity, and promoting resilience without providing enough resources to “join the dots”, such as showing how their job matters.
“Workers need resources, not just endlessly being told to ‘be resilient’,” says Dr Ferguson.
“Resilience requires self-regulation, for example, understanding, ‘I need my time in lieu’; social competence, as in, ‘I’m socially competent enough to tell my boss this is what I need’; and psychological safety, which enables an employee to speak up.”
Coaching employers to respond differently
The first step is “owning that there’s a culture problem,” says Dr Ferguson.
“Change must be top-down and bottom-up.”
After that, companies should prioritise training managers to take a “nuanced” approach, which means treating each employee according to their unique needs as much as possible. A good place to start could be developing a personal situation plan (read more about that here).
Managers should learn to detect issues early, have preventative conversations, and give employees the time and resources required to recover.
“For example, in a high-risk workplace, a good manager would be proactive, preventative and psychosocially aware enough to say to an employee, ‘It looks like you’re burning out. Do you need some time off?’
“Rather than leaving the employee to speak up or merely asking, ‘Is there a problem?’, they’d be sending a message to the whole organisation that we know burn out is dangerous, so we’re acting on it, and there’s no stigma.”
What about the EAP?
Making a referral to the company’s employee assistance program (EAP) is a good first step.
“But that can’t be where employers stop,” says Dr Burgess.
“I would encourage leaders to think about different ways they can model vulnerability, to demonstrate to their people that they’re willing to walk the talk when it comes to prioritising and de-stigmatising mental health at work. “
“This might look like hosting wellbeing sessions where leaders open up about what they do to proactively look after their mental health or ensuring that ‘mental health days’ are normalised by including it as a key feature in employment materials, such as onboarding documents, job advertisements and as an agenda item in one-on-one meetings with managers.
It’s also important that employees seek professional medical help, when needed.
“I would always recommend the guidance of a trained psychologist for complex mental health matters,” says Dr Burgess.
“All of these measures can go a long way in helping an employee to feel safe and comfortable to disclose mental rough patches with their employer.”
Improve your ability to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions and learn effective strategies to manage health and wellness in the workplace with AHRI’s short course.