Mental health & wellbeing

Three practical steps small businesses can take to promote mentally healthy workplaces

Samuel Harvey /

Black Dog Institute

Associate professor Samuel Harvey from the Black Dog Institute. Source: Supplied

Workplace managers are beginning to recognise the crippling cost that poor mental health can create.

Recent media reports highlighted the $74 million bill that taxpayers will foot as a result of mental health claims made to Comcare, the Federal Government’s workplace insurer, in 2015-2016 — but this is only a tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle. In fact, the total national cost of workplace mental health issues is now estimated to be more than $12 billion dollars a year, including more than $200 million in workers’ compensation claims.

Along with these rising costs, we’re seeing a significant increase in mental health issues that require employees to take time out of the workforce. Depression and anxiety are now recognised as the leading cause of work-related long-term sickness absence and disability in most of the developed world. Recognising mental health as key to worker wellbeing brings with it increased responsibility for organisations to think about how they can help their workers remain mentally healthy. If workers do become unwell, it’s important that organisations respond both quickly and appropriately.

My latest study published recently in The Lancet Psychiatry suggests that the rewards of workplace mental health training can be significant. This world-first randomised controlled trial looked at the effects of a four-hour mental health training program, and found it can lead to lead reductions in work-related sickness absence. The study was also the first to show that manager mental health training was associated with a return on investment of $9.98 for each dollar spent on training.

Read more: The mental health red flags of small business ownership

Like physical health conditions, many mental health conditions are highly preventable, and many more are highly treatable once they’ve been diagnosed. As such, organisations have a critical role to play in creating supportive workplaces that prioritise emotional wellbeing.

That’s all well and good, but what practical steps can you take to make your organisation a more supportive, nurturing place for employees?

Where to start

We know that a range of factors significantly contribute to workplace wellbeing. Previous research has shown that things like collegial relationships with managers and co-workers, access to professional opportunities, job security, a sense of control over work, and an appropriate balance of recognition and reward all help enhance mental health in the workplace. It’s also clear that workplaces that reduce stigma towards mental health issues, curb bullying behaviour and genuinely embrace work-life balance are all associated with better mental health outcomes in the workplace.   

There are some universal concepts that you can think about implementing within your workplace. Firstly, prevention is key.

One of the simplest ways to start moving towards prevention is to integrate mental health awareness into your senior leadership teams so they can play a proactive role in creating a healthy and resilient workforce. Once this is achieved, workplaces can start to look at other ways to increase resilience, such as using evidence-based resilience training methods. Beyond these prevention programs, workplaces must be organised so that people can get help as early as possible. Cultural changes in the workplace to help normalise help-seeking behaviours amongst employees are critical, so that when something goes wrong, your workers know who to go to and how to ask for support.

Secondly, clarify ownership. All too often within organisations, well intentioned workplace wellness goals fizzle into little more than tokenistic gestures, so it’s important that this becomes a defined responsibility for a person or team. Those responsible, as well as key people like managers, should also be trained to respond appropriately so they know what to do when a staff member becomes unwell.

Finally, make sure your workplace looks after those employees who do struggle with their mental health. Create clear pathways around recovery: normalise the return-to-work process and make it part of employees’ recovery plans. The goal is to get people back into the workplace; poor mental health need not be a lifelong condition or a dirty secret.  

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to protecting the mental health of your employees. Every organisation is different, and staff needs vary depending on profession type and organisational culture. But taking a structured approach and working with specialists in the workplace mental health field whose expertise is based on rigorously tested, evidence-informed tools, is key.

And while at face value it may seem like a monumental task, the rewards will be significant. After all, what could be more valuable than your staff?

Find out more about Black Dog Institute’s Workplace Wellbeing resources and tailored workplace mental health training programs.

If you or someone you know is living with mental health issues, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

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Samuel Harvey

Associate Professor Sam Harvey leads the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the Black Dog Institute.

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