Workplaces to the fore

With mental ill health now the number one reason for absence from employment, and long-term incapacity, the workplace has become an ideal environment in which to address the issue.

It is estimated that one in six working-age people will at some stage suffer from mental illness. 

A further one-sixth of the population will suffer from symptoms associated with mental ill health, such as worry, sleep problems and fatigue. This does not meet the criteria for a diagnosed mental illness, but it will affect their ability to function at work.

The Black Dog Institute says essential services, such as frontline and medical workers, carry a high stress load, which increases the risk of mental health conditions and suicide.

The Calvary Mater Newcastle engages Access Newcastle Hunter Manning, a not-for-profit employee assistance provider (EAP), for individual counselling and workplace consulting.

Michael Hodgson is the Manager of Human Resources at the Calvary Mater Hospital and says hospital staff dealing with acute care are likely to experience trauma by the very nature of their work.

“Addressing staff mental ill-health is probably a more necessary requirement for us than your average office worker,” says Mr Hodgson. 

“EAP is one way to support staff. We also have policies in place that promote a safe workplace and support staff, as well as a range of initiatives including a social club, free-yoga sessions onsite and access to discounted exercise programs to promote wellbeing. More importantly, we try and create a very personal and welcoming environment and we treat employees as we would treat friends and family.”

Mental illness is associated with high levels of presenteeism, where an employee remains at work despite experiencing symptoms, resulting in lower levels of productivity. Economic analyses consistently show mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are costing Australian businesses about $11 billion each year through absenteeism, reduced work performance, increased turnover rates and compensation claims.

But researchers have found that individuals frequently identify work as a place that boosts wellbeing through providing a sense of purpose, acceptance, and opportunities for development. 

Psychologist and Manager of Access Newcastle Hunter Manning, Kelly Pavan, says employers and workplaces can play an active and significant role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of their workers as well as assisting their recovery from mental health issues. 

“Most workplace mental illness is treatable and, in some cases, preventable,” says Ms Pavan. 

“If you notice any change in behaviours or performance in a colleague or team member, you could consider whether it is due to a mental health issue. Changes in behaviour may include a change in routines, lowered concentration or mood, reduced motivation, decreased personal care, social withdrawal, and elevated levels of irritability. 

“If you have noticed changes, it’s worth having a conversation.” 

It may be difficult to broach the subject, but when and if your colleague does talk, ensure you are actively listening. Don’t jump in with a solution. Ascertain if they’re ready to look for help and assist them if they are.”

Workplace laws protect against mental health discrimination. The Australia-wide Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and equivalent state and territory laws make it unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise people with disabilities.

Importantly, if your mental health condition does not affect how you do your job, you have no legal obligation to tell your employer about it. 

Also, making reasonable adjustments to work for someone experiencing a period of mental ill health is a legal obligation of all employers, and can assist the employee in remaining at work. 

Time off work is not always the best solution for someone with a mental health issue. 

“Benefits of remaining at work include a sense of belonging, avoiding isolation at home, maintaining routine, working towards goals and a sense of purpose,” says Ms Pavan. 

“But if an employee is at risk of self-harming, or suicidal, or is behaving in a way that is significantly affecting other employees and reasonable adjustment is impossible, then continuing at work is not in anyone’s best interests.”  

Managers and team leaders can play a significant role in maintaining and improving the wellbeing of employees. Providing regular feedback and clear role definitions, encouraging respectful communication, acknowledging good work and setting a standard of exceptional behaviour are all important. 

Mr Hodgson points to the longevity of people working at the Calvary Mater Hospital. He notes that de-identified reports provided by Access Newcastle point to employees accessing EAP more for non-work-related issues such as family problems, than for any trauma caused in the course of their Mater duties. 

“It’s a good indication of our commitment to their wellbeing, not just at work,” he says. “It’s important we provide a free EAP service to our employees and their family members because it offers our employees confidentiality and sound, independent, professional advice.” 

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