Walk the talk: The blueprint Australian business leaders need to tackle our mental health crisis

Lisa Annese mental health class

Diversity Council Australia CEO Lisa Annese. Source: supplied.

A new study by Diversity Council Australia shows mental health in Australian workplaces is a tale of two halves: senior executives are finding ways to cope with mental health challenges, while their fellow employees in entry level and non-managerial positions are finding it harder.

Good mental health is defined in this context as a state of wellbeing that enables us to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and contribute to our communities. 

It is an integral part of our health and can be influenced by many factors, including in the workplace; specifically the teams, leaders, and/or organisational culture that we encounter each day in our working environment.  

What the findings of our mental health-themed Inclusion@Work research series show is that employers and business leaders must do more to make workplaces safer places to talk about mental health. Creating space for disclosure, discussion and good faith dialogue – which can subsequently be supported by policy – really is the crucial first step. 

It’s also important for leaders to recognise that their seniority makes a difference, and that they can lead by example; by role modelling and facilitating these conversations about mental health in their organisations. 

So, what is the state of mental health at work?  

Poor mental health is often seen as the outcome of personal rather than workplace issues. 

But our findings tell us this isn’t always the case because almost as many Australian workers told us that their workplace had a very negative or negative (31%) impact on their mental health as those who felt work had a very positive or positive impact (32%).  

DCA data from The Inclusion@Work Index Special Edition: Mapping the State of Inclusion and Mental Health in the Australian Workforce found: 

  • Senior executives were almost twice as likely to report good mental health in the past 12 months than those in entry-level and employee-level positions (61% of senior executives self-reported very good and excellent mental health, compared to only 33% in entry-level positions, and 34% at the employee level);
  • Senior executives were also twice as likely to report their work had a positive impact on their mental health than those in entry- or employee-level positions (58% of senior executives reported a positive or very positive impact, compared to only 29% of those in entry- or employee-level positions); and
  • Senior executives were the most likely to talk about their mental health at work, with six in 10 (63%) reporting they had done so in the 12 months leading up to the survey. Less than a third (31%) of workers in entry-level positions reported discussing mental health at work with anyone. 

Top-down solutions 

Seniority in an organisation is clearly a crucial factor in how people experience mental health at work. External research suggests this is because of the increased autonomy, flexibility and perceived locus of control that comes with career advancement.  

There is also a body of research that shows discussing mental health in the workplace can lead to increased understanding and better access to required support. 

I believe — both as a CEO, and as an individual personally invested in mental health — that business leaders need to use their position to set the tone in their workplaces.  

It is up to leaders to create a space where employees at all levels of a business feel that their workplace has a positive impact on their mental health, and that work is a place where they can speak up when they need support.  

Our Inclusion@Work Index mental health report goes beyond good intentions and pairs them practical recommendations that organisations can use to take the initiative to build mentally healthy workplaces: 

Building inclusion workplaces 

Our research shows that inclusive leaders, teams and workplace cultures are linked to better mental health at work. Who we work with day-in-day-out and how we work together influences our mental health, with workers in inclusive teams being seven times more likely than those in non-inclusive teams to report their work having a positive impact on their mental health. 

Inclusive managers value differences, seek out and draw on a diversity of ideas, treat everyone fairly and address inappropriate behaviour. Feeling included in a team makes us feel like we are connected to our colleagues, that we can contribute and progress at work, our ideas are valued and that we’re respected. This makes us more likely to be more productive, innovative, provide better customer services and committed to achieving business goals. 

Address obvious and subtle exclusion in the workplace 

Exclusion doesn’t just look like overt discrimination and harassment, with subtler forms of exclusion being just as harmful. Our results show workers experiencing everyday exclusionary behaviours at work are significantly more likely to report poor mental health than they are to report excellent mental health. Workers who experience being left out of social gatherings, for example, are three times more likely to report poor mental health (41%) than they are to report excellent mental health (14%).  

Addressing these smaller, more insidious challenges will serve a wider strategy well.  

Make it safe to talk about mental health at work  

One of the key takeaways from our research is that we have work to do to make work a place where most workers are able to talk about their mental health. We need to move beyond ‘check-the-box’ initiatives such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which only address mental health challenges after they’ve occurred, and towards proactive culture change driven by inclusion.  

We know this because workers who had discussed their mental health with colleagues or team members were also significantly more likely to be in an inclusive team (53% of those discussing with colleagues were in inclusive teams, while only 12% were in non-inclusive teams).  

Recognise seniority makes a difference   

Finally, we need to again reinforce and address the gap between how senior leaders experience mental health at work compared to their entry-level colleagues. CEOs and managers can create mentally healthy workplaces by continuing to speak out about mental health at work, which will set an example for others and reduce stigma.  

Until we achieve this, younger workers will continue to face barriers to talking about mental health at work and seeking support as we continue to move forward from the pandemic, and the massive cultural changes it has brought.  

If you or someone you know is at risk of harm, call Lifeline now on: 13 11 14

You call also contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636; Headspace on 1800 650 890; or The Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Or, contact Beyond Blue’s COVID-19 support line on 1800 512 348.

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