Myths, misconceptions and general lack of awareness surrounding mental health conditions are both common and potentially very damaging. Working to educate to reduce stigma, in our homes, work environments and the general community will help break down the barrier between those who are suffering and the services available to support them.
Understanding Mental Ill-health
Mental ill-health is an umbrella term used to describe both mental illness and mental health conditions. However, it is important to understand how to differentiate between the two.
● Mental Illness - Is a disorder that can be diagnosed by a health professional. Though it can present in varying degrees of severity, it usually dramatically interferes with an individual's cognitive, social or emotional abilities. It can include psychotic disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, substance use disorders and eating disorders.
● Mental Health Conditions - These conditions may also interfere with an individual’s cognitive, social or emotional abilities. However, they do not fit the requirements required to diagnose with mental illness. They are very common, with 1 in 5 work-aged Australians experiencing a mental health condition at some stage in their life. Mental health conditions are often brought about due to life stresses. However, they are usually not as severe or as long-lived.
Mental ill-health is an issue worldwide; however, it is becoming increasingly prevalent in our modern, fast-paced society. This is partially due to the increased pressure to succeed in our careers, or work environment.
Mental Health In The Workplace
A recent survey conducted by TNS shows that 1 in 5 Australians have reported taking time off work in the last 12 months due to mental health-related issues. The awareness of Mental health, and the importance of identifying and supporting all colleagues in this area are represented almost equally throughout business hierarchy. With 89% of Leaders and 91% of employees believing a mentally healthy work environment is important.
However, only 56% of employees surveyed believe that their leaders value the importance of a mentally healthy workplace. This is a significant statistic as the survey goes on to show that employees that perceive their workplaces to be mentally unhealthy are almost four times more likely to have taken time off in the past 12 months. With 46% viewing their workplace to be unsupportive and 13% perceiving it as supportive.
There is also a significant cost attributed to mental health absences. According to the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), it is estimated that untreated mental health conditions are costing Australian companies around $10.9 billion a year. The vast majority of this figure (approximately $6.1 Billion) attributes to presenteeism, which is described as an employee physically being at work but with reduced output due to their condition.
This TNS survey included 1,126 interviews with a mix of senior managerial positions (85) and colleagues from lower management and employees (1,041). When taking into account that the Quota is being being weighted to take into account sample size of both location and industry supported by ABS data; the consensus was that a mentally healthy workplace was equally, if not more important than a physically safe one. In New South Wales, the belief that a mentally healthy workplace was important (91%) was significantly higher than the belief in the importance of a physically safe workplace (84%).
This data shows that the stigma around mental health is certainly reducing and people are gaining a greater awareness of the need to support mental health. What this is in contrast to, is the belief that something is actually being done to help. When compared with actual performance in physical safety in the workplace, mentally healthy environments are still lagging behind. In Queensland, the physical safety of workplaces was believed to be around 76% (against an importance of 88%) whereas mental health performance came in at 46% (against an importance of 87%).
So what should we be doing to address this imbalance?
An Australian-first review of the leading research around mental health in the workplace, conducted for Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, took a deep look at tackling this complex issue.
According to the review, a mentally healthy workplace is achievable for all types of organisations but only if it is tied to the core strategic goals of the business and is continuously applied at all levels.
The review concluded that developing a mentally healthy workplace is a continuous and ongoing process. Too many organisations look for a simple quick-fix, one-time solution so that they can tick the box and move on. The review of the research found that this almost never works. Instead, it identified a 5 step strategy for an evidence-based approach to developing a plan for achieving and maintaining a mentally healthy work environment.
- Establish commitment and leadership support
Getting team leadership onboard is an essential first step in any strategy for achieving a mentally healthy workplace. If those in leadership understand the business case, and the need to make mental health a priority, as well as the potential return on investment (or costs associated with not), then this enables the mental health strategy to align and become an essential part of all other business goals and not just an afterthought.
- Situational analysis
Every organisation is unique, and the next step is to identify the specific underlying issues each is facing. There are many tools available for gathering mental health information and these should be used to collect as much information as possible both internally and externally. The resulting data should then be used to identify risk factors and areas for potential improvement within the specific organisation.
Careful analysis of this data can then lead to the development of an overall mental health wellbeing strategy for the organisation. The review identified several key evidence-based strategies, including improving job design, enhancing personal and organisational resilience, supporting early help-seeking and workers recovery, increasing awareness of mental health and reducing stigma. The review found that all of these must be pervasive throughout an organisation to ensure long term success.
Even the most well researched, prepared and implemented mental health wellbeing strategy is not going to be 'set and forget'. It is imperative that organisations continually review their overall effectiveness. Mental health and wellbeing data should continue to be collected after the strategy has been implemented and executed. Analysis and review of this data should then inform decision making on further changes and improvements to the overall mental wellbeing planning.
This final step sets apart organisations who achieve mediocre results from those who manage long term fundamental improvements to the overall mental wellbeing from top to bottom. Taking the information from the review and truly reflecting on what is working and what is not. It’s unlikely that any organisation will get everything right in their strategy the first time around. Therefore, it is important to be prepared for more time, effort and resources to be applied on a continual basis. The research shows it is a worthwhile investment. The review found that common challenges at this stage include resistance from stakeholders, limited resources, cost, stigma, lack of interest or participation or fear of addressing mental health issues and consequences. Facing and overcoming these challenges is why the first step in this process is so important. If mental health wellbeing is aligned with all other core business strategies, as well as being acknowledged as being vital for the long term success and profitability of the business, then ways will be found to overcome these challenges.
Mental health is an issue that impacts everyone, whether directly or indirectly. According to the ‘Workplace Mental Health Toolkit’ put out by the Black Dog Institute in 2017 “one-sixth of the population will be suffering from symptoms associated with mental ill health, such as worry, sleep problems and fatigue, which, while not meeting criteria for a diagnosed mental illness, will be affecting their ability to function at work.” This statistic has since risen to one-fifth in 2019, which is why greater awareness and action must take place.