Opinion article

Reimagining workplace mental health

PwC Director, Economics and Policy, Dr Sharon Ponniah and Strategy& Partner, Damien Angus write that organisations are recognising their growing responsibility to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. 

Workplaces increasingly have a role to play in addressing the social factors that affect their staff, not only as employers but also as partners and stakeholders in the community.

Many workplaces were already progressing efforts to create and sustain a mentally healthy environment before the COVID-19 pandemic, recognising the growing impacts of stress and burnout, loneliness and poor work cultures on their people. These efforts have expanded globally and in Australia in response to increasing economic uncertainty and disrupted working environments caused by the global pandemic.

Previous global financial crises and recessions tell us that suicide risk peaks with unemployment patterns, currently predicted to be 20-30 per cent higher over the next 18 months. Employers also anticipate that increased mental health pressure will cause more employees to seek services in the coming 12 months, as recently detailed in our articles mental health in the age of COVID-19 and COVID-19 places a heightened emphasis on mental health.

Changes in how and where we work will affect workplaces – and workforces – differently, but are also likely to change the nature of mental health issues that emerge in the workplace. Through our work with governments and business we know that there are five key things on the minds of leaders.

What we know to be important to workplaces right now

How to create and sustain a mentally healthy workplace, including getting the basics right and understanding the appetite (and level of maturity) to move beyond the basics and pro-actively introduce sophisticated tools (such as predictive analytics) progressively over time.

How to identify and respond to risk, including upcoming changes to workplace manslaughter and Fair Work Orders if reasonable adjustments to create a mentally healthy workplace are not made.

How to plan for and respond to organisational change and industry disruption to reduce the mental health impacts on the workforce, including considering what the future of work looks like for the workplace and workers.

How to understand the levers that drive mental health awareness and reduce stigma in workplaces, which can be different between, and within, workplaces. Understanding your people deeply and how change affects them is key.

Where to access current and evidence-based information to mitigate illness, prevent harm and promote thriving. This includes leveraging what we know and focusing on how best to apply this in a meaningful way to the workplace.

Practical steps for the future

Organisations that don’t have a mental health and wellbeing strategy will need to develop one and/or refresh their existing one in light of future working arrangements. This may include considering:
  • How increased adoption of flexible working and working from home practices may affect employees. For example, how to create safe working environments with an appropriate OHS set-up; how to deal with increased screen time and sedentary working habits; how to combat fatigue, promote healthy eating, exercise and sleep practices; and how to address social isolation and disconnection from teams, applying a hybrid approach to flexible working.
  • The role and impact of managers and team leaders, and to what extent training for mental health awareness and mental health first aid becomes part of annual education and training requirements. We ask a great deal from our leaders already, and there may be a need for some redesign of roles, resetting expectations and reshaping behaviours (not necessarily mindsets) relevant to workplace type and size.
  • How to build self-efficacy and accountability for mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, including visible role modelling and active health promotion, along with providing choice around support options in a way that is simple and easy to identify “what is right for me”. This may include exploring a suite of digital tools, partnering with mental health providers and solutions to provide self-navigated support.

On digital tools and solutions

CEDA’s recent paper Digitisation of human services outlined the potential for digital technology to help deliver healthcare flexibly, reducing isolation and improving social engagement and connectivity. Digital tools and technology can also play a broader role, to assist individuals and communities to help themselves stay well, to manage ups and downs and to better connect, navigate and identify the right supports across the system when needed. We have seen many examples of human and digital innovation shine through the pandemic, demonstrating how digital technology can help to overcome barriers related to geographic access, stigma and fear of discrimination – all which can equally be applied in the workplace.

Moving forward

Workplaces will need to lean into some important, and at times uncomfortable, discussions about to what extent each workplace is ready to promote wellbeing and to prevent and mitigate mental ill-health.

Some cases will be more straightforward than others. For example, psychosocial harm from exposure to customer aggression for call centre staff can be actively reduced, because this can clearly be identified as a workplace risk. Relevant training, escalation and management procedures can be developed and put in place for staff likely to be exposed to this risk. It’s much harder to design and implement programs to minimise the contribution of long working hours and high-pressure workloads (where the risk is less visible) to stress and burnout over time. And by extension, acknowledging that some individuals thrive in a competitive, high-pressure environment, while others burn out.

Organisations need to get to know their people, the cultures and the social contracts across the workplace. There is no one size fits all when it comes to developing the right suite of tools and approaches for each workplace. And while there is a wealth of best practice to draw from, each workplace will need to tailor implementation across the organisation and across the different cohorts and communities within them.

Many (if not all) workplaces are grappling with how best to create and sustain a mentally healthy workplace. But those who do this well will reap the benefits of a more resilient workforce that is better able to cope with the demands of future ways of working.

About the authors

Damien Angus

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Damien Angus is a Partner at Strategy& and a leader in the Melbourne healthcare practice. Damien has 15 years of strategy consulting experience across Australia, Asia and the USA. Damien is passionate about improving the health and wellbeing of our communities, combining his expertise (gained through earning a PhD in Physiology), strategy skills and healthcare consulting experience. Damien advises corporates and governments on how to transform their organisations to meet future health and care needs. He provides strategic advisory services to help organisations develop and implement their strategies. 



Sharon Ponniah

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Dr Sharon Ponniah is PwC's Director of Health Economics and Policy, where she leads a business focused on understanding effectiveness and value for money delivered across health and social programs, policies and strategies. She holds a PhD in public health, has experience consulting in health and economics across the public and private sectors, and currently sits on the Board of Directors for The Rogue and Rouge Foundation, which helps combat Australia's mental health epidemic among young people.