When Mercy Health introduced mental health R U OK? day initiatives in 2011 for its employees, it was met with a degree of bemusement and a collective roll of the eyes.
“Everyone thought it was a kitschy HR thing,” says Kate McCormack, Mercy Health’s executive director of people, learning and culture.
Like a growing number of workplaces across Australia, Mercy Health sees the strategic benefits of addressing its employees’ mental health. Such issues were once bundled under the vague term ‘burnout’, but increased awareness of depression as a legitimate health concern has made the description inadequate.
“When we talk about burnout now, we’re generally talking about the impact of persistently long working hours and work pressures,” says Nick Arvanitis, head of workplace research and resource development at Beyond Blue. “People have an increased understanding of depression, but we still have a lot of work to do in raising awareness around anxiety conditions.”
Red flag for blue mood
Beyond Blue estimates that one in five Australian employees will experience a mental health condition at any given time. While most of us will feel stress and sadness at some point in our life, when these feelings persist for two weeks or more, they can affect our ability to function day to day and lead to debilitating mental illnesses.
While employers have a moral and legal obligation to care for their employee’s mental wellbeing (health and safety legislation mentions mental wellbeing), a growing financial imperative is also fuelling an interest in employee mental health.
A recent report on mental health in the workplace by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that employers failing to manage mental health conditions in their businesses is costing close to $11 billion a year.
Absenteeism accounts for $4.7 billion of this figure, and presenteeism – people not being fully productive because they are coming to work with untreated mental health conditions – is estimated to cost $6.1 billion a year.
Reducing the stigma
Despite the prevalence of mental health conditions, they are not as readily accepted as physical illnesses. “There’s a need to educate people that depression and anxiety are real, diagnosable conditions,” says Arvanitis. “At the same time, we know that if people receive treatment and support early on, they are likely to recover.”
At Entity Solutions, a contingent workforce specialist employing 75 people at its Melbourne office and 3000 contractors across Australia, talking openly about mental health is encouraged. “A lot of us are affected by mental health in some way [and] we want to remove some of the stigma,” says people and culture manager, Larissa Farnan.
For the past three years, employees have shared their personal experiences of mental health during Entity Solutions’ annual R U OK? day morning teas.
“The fact that people feel safe to stand in front of their colleagues and talk about this shows what a long way we’ve come,” says Farnan. “The message has been that it’s similar to a physical injury issue. You just have to manage it and be aware of it so you can get appropriate treatment.”
Farnan says the first response is to offer an employee assistance program. “All of our managers are taught that they are not counsellors, so it’s important that we refer people to a trained professional. Then we do what we can to manage their work. It’s like a return-to-work injury – we want you to be here, but if that means it’s for less hours, or if it’s a slight change of role, we’re very flexible.”
Unlike physical injuries, the symptoms of mental health conditions can be difficult to identify. “A lot of masking and hiding goes on,” says Rachel Clements, director of psychological services and principal organisational psychologist at the Centre for Corporate Health. “There’s a lot of avoiding and working harder and longer, so teaching people to recognise it can be tricky.”
Early signs often manifest physically, she says. “People look tired. Their distress often turns inward and comes out in a more physical form.” Significant weight loss can be another sign. “I was working with someone recently who lost 15 kilograms in two weeks due to depression. People also start to withdraw and disconnect from their team.”
Beyond Blue encourages all employees to have a basic understanding of the symptoms of mental health conditions. “If a manager sees that someone is beginning to withdraw socially at work, their performance is dropping and they’re no longer looking after their appearance, they might approach them in private and ask if there’s anything they can do to assist,” advises Beyond Blue. “You can provide services to your employees, but if there’s no work done to create a culture where people can have open conversations around mental health, it’s very unlikely that an individual is going to seek treatment.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the June 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Out of balance’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.