This R U OK? Day, don’t be afraid of the big black dog

By
Nareen Young
Blog
Topics Mental Health

An estimated 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. And in any one year, around one million Australian adults suffer depression, and over two million endure anxiety. So why is mental illness something many of us are uncomfortable with, especially at work?

Today I want to rebut some of the myths about mental health in the workplace – and consider what we can all do to improve things for employees with mental health conditions and their workplaces.

Mental illness is not a work issue.

Wrong. Mental health conditions can and do have a significant impact on the workplace. With an estimated 20% of employees likely to be experiencing a mental health problem at any one time, it’s very likely we will all know someone at work who is affected.

The National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) estimates mental disorders account for 13.3% of Australia's total burden of disease and injury and are estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion annually in lost productivity and labour participation. The cost to businesses of depression alone is $12.3 billion a year. This figure includes cost associated with absenteeism, presenteeism (which means reduced productivity at work) and staff turnover.

Employment is a key area of work for the NMHC which is currently working on a major three pronged project, examining best practice initiatives by business; research by the University of New South Wales into evidence-based actions which contribute to creating mentally healthy workplaces; and an investigation by PwC on the return on investment for creating mentally healthy workplaces. This will be developed into resources that provide practical guidance to business to create mentally healthy workplaces, and will be released later in 2013.

On a personal level, many people with mental health issues feel they can’t be themselves or disclose their problems at work and this comes at a great cost – they are not as connected in organisations and feel they may be demoted or sacked at any moment. The decision for a person to disclose in their workplace that they are experiencing a mental health problem is often a difficult one and will ultimately be up to the individual reflecting their individual situation. If a person’s mental illness does not affect how they do their job, then there is no requirement to tell an employer. On the other hand, it may be a good idea if it's affecting their standard of work, especially if there have been issues of warnings for poor work performance and some workplace adjustments may be needed. Of course, employers have legislative obligations on mental health in the workplace, such as anti-discrimination, that they must meet.

There’s nothing an employer can do to help.

Wrong again. There is a lot of evidence that a positive and supportive work environment can go a long way towards aiding a person with a mental health condition to recover. Employers have a real role in raising awareness of mental health and treating it with the same understanding and openness as physical health issues.   

The benefits of participating in paid work are not just about improving financial wellbeing. Research shows that employment contributes to good mental health by encouraging and enabling personal contacts and social networks and friendships, promoting inclusion and fair access, helping to give meaning and purpose beyond financial and material reward. These are things that we all enjoy about our work but in the case of employees with a mental health difficulty, these also contribute to and help support recovery.

Employers have an important role to play in creating mentally healthy workplaces and fostering a culture in which it’s OK for employees to disclose if they need support. BeyondBlue suggests a good starting point is raising awareness of mental health amongst your employees. Other actions can include tackling workplace stigma and discrimination against people experiencing mental health problems; enacting and following supportive policies and procedures; and providing and being aware of pathways to support and guiding others towards them.

A recent survey by SANE Australia found that a majority of the 520 participants said that no support had been provided to them at work when mentally unwell, and less than half of managers (43%) had an understanding of mental illness.

SANE stresses that it’s not a manager or supervisor’s role to diagnose a mental illness nor should a they be expected to be a counsellor. However, having the skills to respond to early signs of mental health problems in the workplace is an important asset.

I don’t know what to say.

Just ask, “Are you ok?”. Reaching out and being supportive is a good way of looking out for your colleagues. Again, it's not your role to diagnose or provide counselling, but you can assist a person to get help if they need it.

R U OK?Day is a national day of action on 12 September dedicated to reminding people to regularly check in with family and friends. The campaign says you don’t have to be an expert to support someone going through a tough time. You just need to be able to listen to their concerns with caring questions and without judgment, give them time to talk, and take the time to follow up with them. You can also help by encouraging them to take one step, such as seeing their doctor. Or if they’re unsure about where to go to for assistance, help them to contact a local doctor or the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if your employer has one.

This R UOK? Day – and every day – I encourage you to take a step to support someone who is having a tough time, and think about how you can help to create a mentally healthy workplace that benefits your business.

Nareen Young is DCA’s Chief Executive Officer

For more resources on managing mental health in the workplace, visit:

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