Shining a light on mental health in the workplace

Among the variety of concerns raised by Australia’s devastating bushfires, the mental health of the families who have suffered directly and of the firefighters and others involved in responding has received considerable attention.

In part this reflects the greater openness about mental health issues across the community and greater recognition of the need to build understanding and awareness of how mental health issues can be managed.

As part of this society-wide change, employers are increasingly recognising that mental health issues cannot be ignored and while their origin is more often than not from factors outside work, they frequently manifest themselves inside workplaces.

In looking at the Productivity Commission’s 2019 Inquiry into Mental Health it was clear to me that there was little research on the experience of Australian workplaces in dealing with mental health issues.

What was needed was a deep-dive not just into theoretical factors at play with mental health and work but in what was actually happened on the ground in real workplaces.

Ai Group commissioned Griffith University to undertake this research to help fill that void.  In particular we wanted to shine a light on the reasons some local workplaces have taken initiatives on mental health, the nature of those initiatives, the barriers they encounter along the way and the results they see.

The study reveals a very human core to the efforts of these organisations to grapple with difficult issues, quite apart from the benefits in terms of productivity, absenteeism and staff turnover.  The findings will be valuable for employers who want some guidance on what they might be doing and as a benchmark for businesses who already have mental health initiatives in place.

The first part of the study consisted of searching current academic research for evidence of what workplaces are doing about mental health.  This review revealed a focus to date on establishing mental health as a workplace issue.

The second component of the research involved six case studies of organisations from various industry sectors, including large and small businesses, all of whom had indicated they had taken some initiatives on mental health. The case studies were drawn from interviews with management in these businesses to identify the triggers for them taking action on mental health issues, the scope of initiatives undertaken, the results, any barriers to doing more and plans for further action.

Among the key findings of the research are:

  • There are a wide range of initiatives being undertaken by the studied businesses with each implementing an average of seven separate initiatives.
  • The most common initiatives included:
    • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
    • Mental health awareness day (eg RUOK day)
    • Mental health first-aid training
    • Organisational-wide meetings that included discussion of mental health issues.
  • Factors that facilitated the introduction of employee mental health initiatives included:
    • The personal commitment of an organisational leader to improving the organisation’s response to mental health. This can stem from direct or indirect personal experience with mental health challenges
    • A clear business case for mental health support
    • An organisational culture that is aligned with or fits mental health activities
    • Activities to develop leaders who know their people and so can identify any mental health issues that develop
    • A budget for activities to address employee mental health.

Almost universally, stigma was cited as the greatest barrier to engaging with mental health initiatives within organisations. This strongly correlates with other studies on mental health.

Beyond this, other barriers organisations encountered included:

  • Managerial reluctance in dealing with employee mental health issues
  • A lack of engagement by individual employees or groups of employees with the organisation and/or mental health activities
  • Understanding how to access mental health assistance beyond an EAP
  • A lack of internal capability and knowledge on mental health
  • Within diverse workforces, differing cultural attitudes to talking about mental health.

A significant, but hardly surprising, finding was that some regionally-based businesses reported that mental health issues in their workplaces were driven by social issues such as high unemployment and substance abuse in the surrounding community. In fact, there was strong feeling among all the businesses studied that many of the mental health issues were generated externally to the workplace, either by community or individual factors. However, managers also understood that internal factors can cause or exacerbate mental health conditions.

Finally, businesses indicated a clear preference to improve their capability to understand and assist with mental health issues, particularly by raising awareness and reducing stigma. The larger organisations are looking at taking a strategic approach to mental health rather than implementing discrete initiatives. They are also keen to know how to better measure outcomes.

The managers reported they are conscious of the organisational context surrounding their efforts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting mental health in workplaces that emerges from this research. They reported intensively individual experiences in pursuing their initiatives, depending on the culture of the workplace, attitudes and background of management and the employees and, as mentioned, even the local community.

There is clearly increasing awareness and interest within Australian workplaces of mental health issues.

As well as helping companies benchmark against the experience of their peers, this report will also inform the growing debate of what policy action is appropriate and help ensure policymakers understand the extent, quality and complex context of the actions businesses are already taking.

View the full report here.

Ai Group also supports members with additional mental health services including training and consulting. Please visit our website for more information.

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Innes Willox
Ai Group Chief Executive since May 2012, Innes joined as Director International and Government Relations in 2008. Prior to this he held a number of senior roles in both the public and private sectors: Australian Consul General to Los Angeles (2006-08); Chief of Staff to Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer (2004-06); and Manager for Global Public Affairs, Singapore Airlines (2000-04). He began his career as a journalist, with his positions including Chief Political Correspondent and Chief of Staff at The Age.

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