By Paul Clifford
27 April 2015

Late last week about 200 leaders from various industries across the country got together at the Mental Health in the Workplace Conference hungry for knowledge about how they can build mentally healthy workplaces. From the feedback received they certainly weren't disappointed. It is clear, particularly from Dr Sam Harvey's presentation, that we do know a lot more than some would think about how to achieve a mentally healthy workforce. The paper 'Developing a Mentally Healthy Workplace: A review of the literature' provides a thorough review of the evidence to support many workplace initiatives in this area and is a must read for anyone serious about taking workplace action in this area.

The following are some of the stand out strategies that were outlined at the conference to help build mentally healthy workplaces.

Literacy and awareness

We have a long way to go to diminish stigma and reduce the fear associated with employing people with mental illness.  One solution is to expose your organisation to stories about people who are functioning well at work with mental health issues.  A lot of the stigma and fear around mental illness comes from a lack of understanding of what mental illness is and what capabilities people with mental health issues continue to possess. Unfortunately we focus too much on the deficits rather than on what can still be done. So one thing you can do is to increase your managers’ literacy and awareness of mental health and this can be done through training programs and by exploring materials at sites like SANE Australia. 

Conversational Managers

Increasing the confidence and competence of managers to have conversations with staff members when they see a person struggling can have a significant impact on workplace mental health. Two critical steps in this process involve skilfully recognising the often subtle signs of mental health issues and secondly knowing how to appropriately broach the issue. The latter involves focusing on observed behaviour rather than seeking to diagnose.  Avoid the use of labels unless the person affected uses them.  Successful conversations require acquiring an understanding of impediments to capability and providing the employee with options to adjust their work in order to accommodate their symptoms and play to their strengths without creating the impression that their future at work is in jeopardy.  To get this right managers need to be aware of their rights and obligations but more importantly they need to practice these conversations so they develop the confidence to choose the wording that will facilitate a productive tone and achieve the desired outcomes.  

Early help-seeking behaviour

It is clear that workplace ill-health often occurs due to the lack of proper attention paid to the issues early by the individual and the organisation. Things that can be done here include regular check in assessments where workers can flag signs and symptoms and resilience training where individuals are taught strategies they can use to build a wall of protection against the variety of stressors they face.  Being successful in encouraging early help seeking behaviour requires a number of things.  Firstly it requires having help seeking avenues that employees want to use.  It’s no good having an EAP as your only source of help when employees are afraid of seeing counsellors and others have had bad experiences.  You need to complement EAP with other support avenues.  Secondly, you need champions who can break down the ‘toughen up princess’ attitude which might appear cool to say but is highly destructive.  The thought that people should just grin and bear the stress of a workplace is simply out-of-date but the strength of peer pressure can be enormous.  Destructive peer pressure is best defeated by positive peer pressure, so use respected champions to turn the tide.  Thirdly, managers must clearly demonstrate that early help seeking does not result in employment loss.  We know this is a significant factor behind a lack of early help seeking behaviour, so examples of people who have sought help and continued to be supported as they carried out in their jobs must be highlighted by management.           

Peer support

The popularity of peer support as a mental heath & wellbeing strategy continues to grow as organisations recognise its capability to do more than offer a support network - it can also have a profound positive impact on organisational culture.  It's easy to implement and cost effective too. It requires a steering committee, a group of committed employees and a quality two day training program and you’re on your way.  The success of peer support lies in the identification that those in need have with their peers.  They reach out to peers because they know that peers have often been through what they are going through.  They therefore feel a connection; that they are not alone in their experience; and this sense that I am not alone is one of the most significant factors that can help heal someone in distress. 

Employee participation and control

Actions that an organisation can take to increase the sense of control and participation of employees have in the workplace can make an enormous difference to their wellbeing.   This includes:

1. building capability to enable the delegation of tasks to employees and the autonomy to carry out those tasks with a reasonable degree of freedom;
2. providing as much flexibility around working hours to enable the job to get done effectively whilst giving employees the opportunity to meet other commitments and fit in with their natural cycles of productivity
3. involving employees in decision making by establishing decision making processes that cater to all team members, not just the most vocal
4. enabling employees to have a role in the change process rather than restricting change decisions to a small team of managers whilst everyone else sits in the ‘waiting room’ anxious about their fate

We do a lot more about how to build a mentally healthy workplace than might be initially obvious.  The gap is often not the solutions but the resources to implement the solutions – allocating time and money to the exercise.  We are always going to be working in imperfect workplaces where distress, personal conflict and challenging situations will arise, sometimes frequently.  However, we do also know that there are many things we can do to build our collective resilience to stressors and leverage our existing strengths and capabilities to increase our wellbeing.  Our will and a good strategic plan can get us there.