Mind matters at work

We all understand the importance of good physical health, but how often do we consider the importance of good mental health, especially in relation to our workplace?

Mental Health Nurse Marc Hopkins, who presented at last year’s NSW ACT IEU support staff conference Work Well, provides a brief overview of the importance of good mental health in the workplace and a few tips on how best to maintain it.

The World Health Organisaton defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

A report by the Human Rights Commission in 2010 said “around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, while one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year”.

At some point during our lives we will all come into contact with someone who has experienced mental illness, to some degree. This could be through experiencing mental illness ourselves, or by a close family member, or even a work colleague.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010 put the annual cost of mental illness in Australia at an estimated $20 billion annually (this includes the cost of lost productivity and labour force participation).

Even though this monetary cost is staggeringly high, it does not take into account the greatest cost, which is the emotional turmoil to the individual and their family.

A report for the Mental Health Commission and Mental Healthy Workplace Alliance 2014, Developing a Mental Healthy Workplace: a Review of Literature said “there is increasing evidence that workplaces can play an important and active role in maintaining the mental health and wellbeing of their workers”.

Reduce stigma

Mental illness has a significant impact on absenteeism, poor work performance and can lead to long term illness. Australia’s federal and state governments and corporate organisations are looking at ways to improve workplace mental health and reduce the cost impact of mental illness in the workplace.

One of the most important things we as individuals and as a society as a whole need to do is change our attitudes towards mental illness to reduce the negative stigma associated with suffering any form of mental illness.

The stigma associated with mental illness can have a significant impact on an individual’s personal identity, self esteem, social recognition and our attitudes can make those with a mental illness feel excluded and marginalised.

This stigma felt in the workplace can make workers reluctant to seek treatment out of fear that they might be further excluded and in fear of possibly losing their jobs. As you can imagine this leads to more fear and anxiety which compounds the problems they are experiencing.

Positive promotion

The workplace can play an important role in maintaining the mental health and wellbeing of workers. Timely treatment can help reduce the impact of mental health issues on the worker and have a more positive impact on their job performance. Unfortunately, many mental health issues often go untreated because they are often not recognised, or the individual is hesitant to seek help.

Promoting positive mental health and well being at work has benefits for the organisation and the individual. Through the promotion of a holistically healthy work environment, the organisation benefits from improved production, while the individual benefits through a more healthy lifestyle and more positive relationships with work colleagues, family and friends.

Through Work Health and Safety and Anti Discrimination legislation, employers and their managers are legally required to prevent both physical and mental harm in their workplace, but they are also required not to discriminate on the basis of a workers mental health status.

Reducing physical risks has been the primary focus previously, but now there is a need for employers to recognise mental health issues as a legitimate workplace concern and reduce any contributing risks.

Organisation can do this by raising awareness of mental health in the workplace and building a workplace culture that promotes mental health and wellbeing. Employers and managers need to look at ways of strengthening the protective factors and promoting a healthy and holistic approach to mental health in the workplace.

Education of the workforce in the understanding of mental health, prevention, early recognition and support, and good access to care along with good holistic rehabilitation principles, are all important aspects that need to be part of the organisation’s approach.

Having designated mental health first aid trained workers in the workplace (working alongside other first aid trained workers) is another positive step that some organisation have taken to improve the support offered to workers.

One of the most important things we as individuals and as a society as a whole need to do is reduce the negative stigma.

Resilience can help

Even though there is a move to improve workplace practices and reduce stigma associated with mental illness, organisational changes are often outside the control of most employees.

But all individuals can take steps to improve their resilience. ‘Resilience’ is a combination of protective behaviours and thoughts that help improve our ability to adapt and manage the stress and the problems encountered during everyday living. ‘Resilience’ behaviour and thinking can be learned.

Some of the ways for individuals to improve resilience are:

good communication and problem solving skills

stress management training

coaching and mentoring relationships

improving physical activity and good sleep habits

supportive and positive relationships with family and friends

staying flexible and open to change, and

remembering to focus on the positives in your life.

Remember to seek or encourage others to seek intervention early, such as counselling, when first feeling the effects of stress. Early intervention provides the best opportunity for a more positive outcome.

Sources of help

There are a number of websites such as beyondblue (beyondblue.org.au) or Black Dog Institute (blackdoginstitute.org.au) that provide resources for those that seek further understanding or are seeking help with a mental health issue.

There is also your local GP or the NSW 24/7 mental health line 1800011511 for immediate help.

Everyone in the workplace can make a contribution to improving mental health outcomes. This includes becoming familiar with the local policy in your organisation and the pathways to assisting someone with a mental health issue at your work – take a positive step to building your ‘resilience’ today.


World Health Organization 2011. Mental Health: A state of wellbeing, www.who.int.

Australian Human Rights Commission 2010 Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers.