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Legal | Occupational Health & Safety

Mentally healthy workplaces – a necessary reform for our mental health

10 Mar 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Australian employers are facing increasing pressure to address mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Every year on average eight million working days are lost due to mental ill-health, with one in five people (21 percent) taking time off because they feel stressed, anxious or depressed.

Stigma and discrimination is also an issue, with 78.1 percent of respondents experiencing some level of it at work in the past year, according to SANE’s National Stigma Report Card (2020).

As a result of these factors, mental health claims are on the rise – accounting for 34 percent of the overall workers’ compensation claims relating to COVID-19.

But while employers are keen to effect change, many are facing confusion in the process. “They want to act, but finding where to start and which advice to follow can be a challenge,” said National Mental Health Commission CEO, Christine Morgan, ahead of the National Workers’ Compensation Summit.

Navigating a clear path forward

Understanding which actions to take to meet legislated requirements can also be a challenge. Work health and safety, workers compensation, workplace relations, and privacy and discrimination legislation all address mental health at work in some way.

“There are a wide range of different requirements related to mentally healthy workplaces. These requirements vary across jurisdictions and sometimes even industries, making it challenging to know how to meet obligations,” Ms Morgan said.

Enacting these requirements can also be difficult, particularly when they are spread across multiple roles, including business leaders, human resources, work health and safety, managers and workers. Small business owners face the challenge of navigating these requirements on top of running a business.

A good place to start

While building a mentally healthy workplace may take investment over time, there are small steps that all workplaces can take today to get started.

Considered communication, for example, can be a strong tool for dispelling stigma and ensuring people get the right support when they need it, Ms. Morgan said.

“Communication is one of the most powerful tools for supporting workers in challenging times – listening to them to understand what they need, keeping them updated, even if the situation is uncertain, and helping them stay connected should be the foundation of any organisation’s response,” Ms. Morgan said.

“Unfortunately, there is significant stigma around mental health as a nation. Workplaces do not operate in a vacuum, and our public attitudes about mental ill-health and suicide are not something we can leave at the door when we go to work. How we communicate can help reduce stigma and ensure people are not afraid to speak up when they may need support.”

To that end, organisations should make sure workers have an internal point of contact to discuss any questions or concerns, she added.

Secondly, employers can take measures to foster connection and purpose.

“Allowing workers to feel connected to others and a purpose at work can help people through challenging times. It is also important to celebrate successes or ways that people have been able to adapt,” Ms. Morgan said.

Next, organisations can address risks to mental health as much as they reasonably can. This is a legislated requirement for every workplace in each jurisdiction.

“Consult with workers and understand what they are concerned about and build solutions together,” she added.

Positive change is on its way

On a positive note, there are strong signs that policy and workplaces are headed in the right direction.

“It is a busy time for mental health reform,” Ms. Morgan said. “2020 saw the release of the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report into Mental Health released alongside my interim advice as the National Suicide Prevention Advisor.

“These highlight the importance of mentally healthy workplaces and recommend a range of actions including changes to work health and safety requirements, and workers compensation schemes. We anticipate seeing responses to these reports this year.”

Additionally, more workplaces are taking action to support mental health and wellbeing, with an increased number of industry-based initiatives.

SuperFriend, Mates in Construction, Healthy Heads in Trucks and Sheds for the Transport Industry, the Arts Wellbeing Collective, the AFL Players Association’s Framework and the Corporate Mental Health Alliance of Australia are just some of the approaches being created by industry for industry.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has sped up some of the changes already underway, particularly around remote working. “If this is set up well, both workplaces and workers can experience a range of benefits from less commuting time, small real-estate footprints and supporting more diversity in the workplace,” Ms. Morgan said.

More help for all workplaces

Over the longer-term, The National Mental Health Commission wants to support business owners, leaders, HR managers, WHS professionals and people managers to create work environments that promote mental health and wellbeing, and reduce stigma.

“We will be building these skills and knowledge into professional training programs such as MBAs, tertiary courses and vocational education and training programs so that they become common knowledge and part of business responses regardless of the size of your business,” Ms. Morgan said.

Looking ahead, further help is coming in the form of its National Workplace Initiative. Supported by the members of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, this leading national approach will support workplaces as they respond to the legislation and opportunity surrounding mentally healthy workplaces.

“The National Workplace Initiative creates an opportunity to align the sector on what good practice looks like, so it is easy for workplaces to understand what they can do to improve mental health in their workplace.

Through this initiative, we will make it easier for people to understand where to start and which advice to trust,” Ms. Morgan concluded.

Talking more about mental health in the workplace, Ms. Morgan is due to present at the National Workers’ Compensation Summit – March 30-31 at the Sofitel Darling Harbour Sydney.

Joining Ms. Morgan on the stage is Kosta Savidakis, Head of Workplace Risk Australasia, Willis Towers Watson; Ian Firth, State Inspector, SafeWork NSW and Professor Ian Cameron, Head, John Walsh Centre for Rehabilitation Research, The University of Sydney.

Learn more and register.

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