Mental health has become a personal priority for many in recent years with the advent of COVID-19 lockdowns and its many pressures, both financial and emotional. Unfortunately, in practice this has not necessarily been mirrored in workplaces across Australia.
After researching this area and in consultation with many organisations, it is clear the reasons for this tend to revolve around a lack of awareness across organisations on how to best tackle the issue.
As a country we have become quite good at addressing physical hazards and risks in the workplace, but less so psychosocial hazards. Over the past two decades, serious workers compensation claims have declined, with an overall drop in serious claims by 13 per cent since 2000.
Mental health conditions already have the highest levels of compensation with median compensation paid of $45,900 compared to just $14,500 for overall claims in 2018-19. And the trends are all pointing to an escalation of costs claimed, with projections indicating these costs will triple by 2030.
It’s not just the monetary cost either for organisations. Leave periods are also longer for mental health conditions. Mental stress claims have a median time off work of 27 weeks compared to just seven weeks for other serious claims.
What is behind this trend? It is estimated that 3.5 million Australians have mild to moderate mental health issues. And an increased awareness in the community of the impacts of poor mental health has not been reflected in the workplace. Many employers seem to believe offering free yoga classes, fruit boxes or mental health awareness morning teas can address the issue.
However, though these may all be nice in a workplace and valued by employees, the evidence clearly points to them having no discernible impact on the actual mental health of employees.
Major industries in WA, including the construction sector and FIFO roles in the mining industry, have taken positive steps to address mental health concerns. These include industry-led awareness campaigns. WA also has a code of practice specifically for FIFO workers which addresses specific issues around mental health in a challenging work environment.
But all business, even in less high-risk industries, can benefit from investing in the mental health of their staff.
It’s the everyday factors, not one-offs, that relate to how a job operates in practice that really impacts an employee’s mental health. Unsurprisingly, when jobs are insecure or temporary, this weighs negatively on mental health.
Other factors that make a critical difference to a staff member’s mental health relate to the demands of a job and the level of control an employee has over these demands, combined with the resources they can access. Workplaces that ensure their employees can access support, feedback and learning opportunities will lessen the impacts of high strain jobs. Ensuring that employees work on a variety of tasks and are able to use their skills are other positive factors, as are reasonable working hours and having strong relationships with colleagues.
Unsurprisingly the relationship between an employee and their line manager is vitally important for the mental health of employees. Managers can benefit from undergoing specific training to help identify mental health problems, respond to staff who need support and be able to appropriately adjust working conditions.
These training programs can be further supported by firm-wide mental health strategies that are clearly endorsed by those at a leadership level.
All these initiatives are not revolutionary, they just require the same impetus for change demanded by the community that has been demanded for physical safety.
It’s estimated mental ill health costs the economy up to $40 billion a year in lost productivity and participation. Organisations which get this right will get a double dividend, with better long-term performance and a healthier workforce.
This opinion article originally appeared in The West Australian.