Statistics indicate 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, with 20 per cent affected every year by conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. For the workforce this means that, at some time during their career, every employee will likely be impacted either directly or indirectly by mental illness.
These disturbing statistics have been contributing factors in prompting the federal government to appoint the country’s first federal mental health minister and invest in foundational health system reform. But businesses themselves have a role to play in the management, early intervention and treatment of mental illness.
National mental health charity SANE assists employers and managers to become better equipped to manage mental illness in the workplace AHRI has formally partnered with SANE and delivered several in-house programs to give managers training on how to best address the issue of mental health in the workplace.
Most workforces have plans in place to accommodate staff with chronic illness, but appear to be less prepared to do the same for mental illness. There is still a stigma that exists around mental illness, particularly in the workplace.
Breaking down this stigma and opening the channels of communication around mental health means that people who are in distress or are unwell can be helped as quickly as if they had a physical health problem.
SANE’s Mindful Employer Program, program provides a solution so that there is more knowledge in the workplace about mental illness, and less fear and stigma towards it, so that early intervention is an option.
However, a paper in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2008, revealed that: “Despite one in five Australians experiencing mental health problems each year, nearly half of all senior managers believe that none of their workers will experience a mental-health problem at work.”
By helping managers, supervisors, organisational leaders, and staff understand what mental illness is and how to help someone living with it in times of crisis or distress, stigma can be broken down and confidence can be built.
Castle says encouraging a culture that is accepting and aware of mental health issues enables an open dialogue within the workforce.
Castle suggests that small allowances, like offering some flexibility in the workplace, make for a supportive and positive working environment.
What do employees want?
A study conducted by Medibank Health Solutions, which was published last year, found that 78 per cent of employees believe their employer has a responsibility to provide support for employees for mental health issues, and 64 per cent of employees said that they would be encouraged to address their mental health issues if their employer provided a workplace-support program.
One common stumbling block employers and managers encounter is that some people don’t wish to divulge their mental illness, and nor should they be forced to. But with research proving that, given the right environment and support system, staff would address these issues at work, it appears that a cultural shift in attitudes towards mental illness is something business should take seriously.
CitBank Australia has used SANE’s Mindful Employer Program to address the issue of mental health in its workplace. “Like most Australian businesses, Citi employees have a level of awareness regarding the prevalence of mental illness in Australia and in Australian workplaces. Knowing this, however, is very different from recognising possible signs of a mental health problem when confronted,” says Joanne Allen, head of HR at CitiBank Australia. As a result of the program, the channels of communication have been opened, allowing the topic of mental health to be discussed, and therefore de-stigmatised, in CitiBank’s workplace. “Knowledge of the signs of a potential mental health issue and how to approach these issues has provided confidence to employees, managers and HR professionals. This has a two-way effect. Staff who are experiencing a mental health issue are more likely to disclose their issues in a supportive environment, to a manager who has awareness of what they are experiencing. With the help of our HR team, a plan can then be put into place to assist the staff member while they are getting better, just as would occur for any other health-related issue,” says Allen.
After 12 months with program in place, Citi sees it as an effective business tool.
For more information on any of these programs, visit:
AHRI runs a half-day workshop to build skills in managing a staff member with a mental health condition www.ahri.com.au/SANE