Alarming findings show far more needs to be done to support employees’ mental health at work. How can organisations do better this year?
Mental health support is no longer a workplace perk; it’s a bare necessity.
Meditation sessions, mental health days and access to EAPs are widely available in many organisations.
On top of this, George Garrop, CEO of the Australian College of Applied Professions (ACAP), says that employees are repeatedly told ‘to be themselves’ and that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ at work.
Why then do more than one in two Australian employees say they’d hide a mental or physical health condition at work to avoid being judged or discriminated against? And why do 67 per cent of HR and recruitment workers feel lip service is being paid to their mental health?
These worrying findings gleaned from a recent ACAP survey of 1000 Australian employees, and conducted in October 2021 by YouGov, indicate there’s still a significant way to go in providing effective mental health support at work.
Garrop shares what steps organisations can take to rectify the situation, and how, as we enter another year of the pandemic, you can help employees feel more supported at work.
Guarding whole self
It’s alarming to think that one in two employees would hide a mental or physical health condition to avoid being judged or discriminated against.
Garrop puts this finding down to pervasive stigma that still exists around mental health issues.
“One of our professors at the college has talked about the fact there is still discrimination and bullying in different sectors when people share their mental health struggles,” says Garrop.
“I tell my managers to first and foremost acknowledge that mental health issues have real impacts on our people. Like a broken leg, a mental health episode impacts your ability to operate, your ability to perform your function, and it needs to be recognised and supported in ways that we have done with physical injuries or mental health days.”
HR leaders in particular are doing it tough. Sixty per cent of HR and recruitment workers said they would hide a mental or physical health condition to avoid being judged or discriminated against, compared to 53 per cent of employees.
HR and recruitment workers were the second most likely group (the first being the IT and computing services industry) to say their company had introduced wellbeing initiatives as a ‘tick the box’ exercise yet their manager shows minimal concern or empathy for their wellbeing. Nearly half of Australian employees believed this to be the case.
Garrop believes these findings emerged because HR managers are often relied upon as an essential source of support.
“There is an extra responsibility on the HR team. In the last couple of years, they’ve had to shoulder some of the challenges in a workplace at a greater level than ever before. And perhaps HR is also the accidental counsellor for many staff within our business,” says Garrop.
He likens HR’s need for a shoulder to lean on to the support often needed by psychologists and counsellors.
“Therapists expend a lot of energy helping others and many need their own help in being able to manage that. For the last two years, HR has been a touchpoint for so many staff, so they themselves need extra support.”
Garrop advises businesses to take two key steps in supporting HR leaders:
- Acknowledge that your HR team has done extra work: “This is not anecdotal anymore. The research is telling senior management that their HR team has had extra responsibility during this period, and they are feeling the pressure.”
- Support HR: “You’ve got to be an empathetic leader to them. Look at tools to help them get through this next period.”
It’s all well and good to introduce wellbeing initiatives, but if the support provided isn’t genuine, and if there isn’t a culture of psychological safety that encourages openness about mental health, employees are unlikely to feel supported.
“Australians still feel very guarded in the workplace. Organisations have enacted different mental health strategies in the last few years, and there’s more talk about wellbeing, diversity and self-care, but the research has clearly told us that it’s not always getting through.
“Leaders have to be seen as supporting wellbeing initiatives.”
This means showing vulnerability and having empathy, he says. In particular, he notes active listening is often absent from a manager’s approach.
“This is a challenge for many managers, especially for those in highly technical roles. These managers often have all the technical answers and have a great deal of experience, but they don’t have the active listening skills and emotional intelligence to help their team cope with the impacts of COVID-19.”
Although developing strong people skills doesn’t happen overnight, enrolling in a short course on emotional intelligence can be an excellent way to start the process, says Garrop.
“Something like a unit in an MBA or a short course in a particular area could take anywhere from four, 10 to 13 weeks. An MBA doesn’t have to be a three year journey. You can do a single unit in an MBA or a graduate certificate in coaching. Go and do one of the first early units about people management and build up your skill set.”
Short of enrolling in a course, leaders can take small steps to prioritise mental health today.
“Look at your diary, plan your week out and ask yourself: Are you showing empathy for your employee’s personal or professional struggles? Do you have effective communication every single week with your team? Are you checking in about how they’re coping?”
“These are things that we can do now, that don’t require a big organisational strategy, but are people skills 101.”
Wellbeing strategies in action
Instead of embedding a wellbeing initiative simply because it sounds useful or easy to implement, assess the unique needs of your workplace.
“Have a dialogue with staff through surveys and active communication to understand what’s happening on the ground, and then bring in appropriate professionals to assess those insights and to look at what’s most appropriate for your workplace.”
Employees are often reluctant to take up wellbeing offerings if there aren’t tools to help them, or if the organisation’s culture doesn’t make it easy for them to do so.
Astrid Kendrick, Director of Field Experience at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, recently experienced this problem after introducing a ‘self-care streak’ – taking part in a self-care activity for as many consecutive days as possible – for teacher students as part of the university’s field experience course.
“We designed our field experience courses to include reading articles about school wellbeing, creating a self-care plan so students would investigate the supports and resources available to them, and then added the #FieldSelfCareStreak as one way to challenge them to integrate self-care,” says Kendrick.
“In hearing from the students and instructors, the biggest challenge to implementing their self-care strategies came from within the schools themselves. Some students noted that self-care was not a priority within their school, so they did not feel comfortable taking time during the school day to protect their wellness – instead they tried to fit self-care either before or after they returned home.”
Kendrick notes that this workplace limitation has likely been “the hardest part” of rolling out the ‘self-care streak’.
“We have been working to educate and inform our partners in the community about self-care so that the school workplace culture can change to embrace, rather than stigmatise, self-care.”
Getting leaders on board, and attaching a public-facing component to the challenge, was also key to embedding the ‘self-care streak’ into the student teachers’ routines.
“We felt that having a self-care plan was not enough – the students needed a reason to implement it, and we decided that using Twitter was one way to connect to the students and to be role models by completing our own self-care goals in a more public forum,” says Kendrick.
“The Dean of Werklund, Dr Dianne Gereluk, was incredibly important as she not only participated, but participated whole-heartedly, creating art every evening as her method of self-care.”
Students and faculty posted their self-care activity, eliciting responses and participation from other faculties and universities.
For organisations looking to implement their own wellbeing initiative – whether a ‘self-care streak’ or another program entirely – Kendrick suggests they ask themselves: Can the employee easily access and utilise their health benefits? Is there a commitment by the employer to respect employee wellbeing during non-work hours? If needed, can the employer provide access to, or build knowledge about, key mental health supports?
On the first question, she says there are three things that are critical to helping the individual enact their self-care goals:
- Space: This involves investing in the physical environment, such as an outdoor garden, comfortable lunch room or exercise area “so that employees have a place to go to take a mental break from their work responsibilities.”
- Time: This requires providing scheduled breaks and encouraging people to take their breaks away from their desks or place of work, says Kendrick.
- Opportunity: “Employees experience a work culture that prioritises their mental and emotional wellbeing through targeted policies.”
“People still feel a stigma attached to admitting that they need help,” says Kendrick. “So working within an organisation that proactively provides opportunities for them to access the support and resources they need can enable them to do and access what they need to feel better.”