BLOG: Going beyond “are you ok?”: Mental health at work

On World Mental Health Day, IOE encourages businesses to tackle the stigma of mental health at work.

By Pierre Vincensini, IOE Senior Advisor

Tuesday 6 September was unlike any other day at Australia’s 24-hour crisis call center, Lifeline. The organisation received more calls that day than ever before in its 57-year history. For the staff and volunteers, the signs were now clear that the Covid-19 crisis and lockdowns were taking a very significant toll on people’s mental health in Australia. Reports from the United States, Hong Kong to Nepal and many other places are confirming this trend.

On average, it is estimated that one in four people can experience a mental health problem. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is expected that the need for mental health and psychosocial support as a result of the pandemic will substantially increase in the coming months and years. The World Bank in a recent blog said: “A fundamental rethinking is needed to overcome the false dichotomy between physical health and mental health in health services. Mental health parity must be placed at the core of human capital development.” In the latest edition of the Economist, an article raised concerns over the potential for rising suicide rates across world.

Business is committed to increasing investment and strengthening dialogue and support on mental health at work.

Business case for tackling mental health issues

Beyond the specific measures taken in response to the pandemic, health is at core of the future of work.

Mental health interventions in the workplace aim to prevent exposure to risks at their source by providing an optimal working environment (e.g. flexible work hours), or to reduce the impact of stressors that have already occurred (e.g. time and conflict management, etc.), or to soften and reduce the impact of an ongoing mental health condition (e.g. return to work, employee assistance programme).

Mental health and well-being interventions can target individuals or be enterprise wide. There is strong evidence that shows interventions directed at the entire workforce may be most appropriate to avoid stigma and can reduce anxiety symptoms and depression. Still, there are complex questions to be dealt with. What is the root cause? Is it work related or personal? Considering the high negative economic impact of poor mental health in the workplace, there is a strong business case to tackle it.

Ending stigma on mental health issues at work

One of the greatest challenges around mental health is stigma and discrimination, causing people with mental health conditions likely to be treated less favorably. Mental illness stigma is also a major barrier to asking for help or engaging in an open dialogue with staff. How do we help people to recognise when they need help?

An important dimension in this area is the need for practical guidance or training for managers and employees on how to start and conduct conversations with an employee who has or might have a mental health condition. In some cases, employees will raise the issue themselves, while in other managers need to take action. Manager’s role is to enable the person to do their job, in a positive and supportive manner, by exploring the issues and seeing what can be done to help while respecting a person’s privacy and confidentiality in the process.

In order to prevent development of mental health conditions in the workplace, companies can develop and implement specific action usually integrated with the broader well-being policy. They include creating a positive and healthy working culture, through improving working conditions, facilitating work-life balance and minimising the risk of stress such as:

  • Flexible working hours and disconnection practices as agreed by both employer and employee
  • Promotion of healthy lifestyle (through availability of healthy nutrition, physical activity interventions, etc.)
  • Taking action in the case of excessive employee workload
  • Stress management and resilience workshops for managers and employees
  • Guidance or training for all staff on communication and interpersonal skills
  • Promotion of work-life balance

Employers know the important role they play in enhancing the mental health and productivity of their workforce. Enterprises that implement mental health policies and programmes often find there are benefits in doing so notably through reduction in days lost through sick leave, and improvements in staff turnover and employee satisfaction. The workplace can provide a vital setting for promoting good mental health. The unprecedented times we all are going through offer opportunities to expand efforts and achievements in this field.

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