Why offering mental health support is vital

Mindful Employer Lead Faciliator Eliza Oakley talks about mental health support and why it is vital for our workplaces.

Mental illness comes in many forms and affects a surprising number of people in the workplace at any time. How colleagues and management deal with it can have a dramatic effect on the outcomes for both employees and the company. By looking after its people, who are an organisation’s most important asset, the best outcomes for all concerned will be achieved.

Failure to provide support when someone is experiencing a mental health condition in the workplace can make the problem worse for the employee and the employer.

As well as the cost to the person’s health, productivity is affected too. This can be seen in absenteeism and presenteeism, which is where someone comes to work but they won’t be as engaged.

A more engaged workplace means increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and is more likely to be considered a workplace of choice.

Fighting stigma

Stigma around mental illness is the key issue, which needs to be addressed in all Australian workplaces, across all industries. A major problem with stigma in the workplace is that people experiencing a mental illness are perceived as not being as capable. However, that’s just not true. Just because someone has a mental health condition, it doesn’t mean they can’t do their job as well as anybody else.

The human costs of stigma in the workplace are stress, morale drop and often conflict. Stigma in the workplace can act as a barrier to someone doing their job in an effective manner. Stigma can lead an employee who is experiencing a mental health condition, to feeling that they won’t be understood or they’ll be judged unfairly, if they do disclose in their workplace.

What this means for both the individual and the employer is that they are not seeking help nor being linked into the support they need. It might also mean they won’t take advantage of help that’s offered because they don’t want to be seen leaving work early for an appointment. This has a huge impact: not only does their sense of not coping increase, but they may feel they have to be more resilient, compounding the problem, when in fact there is support available that could help them.

What’s the right approach?

Any time you notice a change in someone, whether that is in the form of their performance, appearance or behaviour, it is helpful to check out how they’re going.

In the first instance, it’s as simple as raising what we notice and expressing our concern for another human being.

The reticence to speak up is usually driven by a lack of confidence or understanding of what can be done. Many managers say ‘I’m concerned but don’t want to make things worse’, ‘I don’t know what to do’, or even ‘it’s not my business’.

It is our business to care about our employees, so we need to check if the person is okay; all it takes is simple phrases like ‘I just want you to know I noticed this, it’s not like you, just checking how you’re going’. And then be willing to listen to the person’s response without judgement.

We’re not looking for disclosure or diagnosis. No one at work would diagnose a colleague’s limp, they’d probably just notice it and enquire if the person is okay. If somebody behaves in a certain way, or has mood swings, who’s to say what’s going on for them? We have to be careful we don’t decide that for them.

Never ask “are you okay?”... without following it up, even if it’s over a coffee or just wandering past and saying ‘g’day’ the next week. The important thing is to build a supportive, open culture and be proactive, not wait until someone is in crisis or doesn’t turn up for work.

Link into the support network

Once the dialogue has been initiated, there are ways to link the person in to the support they need:

1. Most organisations have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is a free and confidential counselling service that can help in managing our lives at work and home.

2. The SANE helpcentre www.sane.org offers free information, advice and support across a wide range of issues and conditions.

3. Ask if they have a GP they could get checked out with, who might be able to diagnose underlying stress, help with lack of sleep or physical issues and give a referral to see a psychologist if necessary.

Create a supportive workplace

Early intervention, which means checking things out with an employee early, will help the employee to link into support. We need to keep the employee at work as much as possible, rather than automatically sending the person off on leave and telling them to return ‘when they are better’.

There might need to be adjustments, such as working from home one day a week or job sharing. It really comes down to the role, but flexibility is crucial. The aim is to help the person perform their job to the best of their ability and continue to be valued as a productive employee.

Creating a supportive environment where people feel safe to ask for help and remain working requires genuine commitment from leadership. The Mindful Employer program provides training and consulting services to organisations on making mental health part of the workplace culture, from the mindful employer charter through to training on best practice mental health approaches in the workplace.

Addressing mental health benefits everyone

Understanding how to address mental health concerns within the workplace means that employees can be linked into the best support available early. This also benefits their colleagues and management along with the person’s family and friends.

It also leads to a secure and comfortable place for people to work, where there’s increased opportunity for conversations around mental health concerns so that early support can be initiated. If leadership maintains a supportive approach to mental health in the workplace, we are more likely to see employees who are experiencing mental health concerns being willing to seek help from their managers, supervisors or team leaders.

At the business level, a more engaged workplace means increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and is more likely to be considered a workplace of choice.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate; it can affect anyone at any level within an organisation and further impacts families, friends and work colleagues, but understanding and support makes a world of difference – and the world a different place.