Focus on mental health in the workplace

by 15 Feb 2012

One of themajor challenges for employers in coming years will be to prevent mental health and psychosocial injuries in the workplace.

According to Australian Services Union (2009) stress related illness costs Australian employers around $14bn annually in absenteeism, compensation claims and lost productivity.

There are also significant human costs. Stress contributes to around 70% of all physical and mental illnesses, including depression, which the World Health Organisation claims will be a major cause of disease in the world by 2030.

According to a recent lifeline survey 48% of Australians currently experience stress levels that if prolonged could make them sick, and one in five people will experience a mental health issue this year. Work is reported to be one of the major causes of stress.

The introduction of new workplace health and safety laws this year may go some way to addressing this. Under the new legislation employers have a positive duty of care to provide a safe and healthy workplace.

But employers need to realise there are huge benefits in a healthier and happier workforce. They also need to be aware that there are effective ways of preventing stress related injury and mental disorders.

As well as looking at job structure and organisational culture, one of the best ways to prevent mental health conditions in the workplace is to assist employees to manage stress by offering health and wellbeing programs.

Studies show that organisations that offer health and wellness programs perform better in the marketplace due to increased productivity, reduced compensation costs and lower absenteeism.

Employees that participate in workplace health programs also report increased subjective wellbeing and greater engagement in their work.

Some of the leading international organisations, including GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG and Google, are using mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a scientifically proven way of reducing stress, as a core part of their wellbeing programs.

Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention to what is going on in the present moment, without judging it. The practices teach people how to disengage from constant mind chatter that not only makes it more difficult to think clearly, but which can also activate the flight or fight response. This can result in adrenal fatigue (burnout) and reduced immune function.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the Massachusetts Medical Centre in the US and has been proven to work as an effective way of reducing stress in an increasing number of scientific studies.

With mindfulness practices people learn to pay more attention to what is going on in their bodies and minds. They also learn to be more present with whatever is going on around them. With this awareness comes the capacityto shift attention to more helpful ways of thinking and responding.

Just like people go to the gym to increase muscle tone, mindfulness meditation helps strengthen our capacity to pay attention and appreciate what is going on in the here and now.

Neuroscientists who have studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain have confirmed that brain function changes when people meditate. The area that regulates emotion is stronger and there is more activity in the area that corresponds to positive emotion.

Mindfulness is not only good for employees’ health, it is also good for business. Employees at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, for example, participate in retreats and mindfulness workshops. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Green Mountain’s stock price increased by 3,400% over 10 years, making it one of the best performing stocks for the period.

On a more general level studies are showing an average rate of return on investment in employee health programs of between 2.1 and 5.1 over a two-year period.

Under the new laws physical safety will remain a priority but health, especially mental health, needs to be addressed. Mindfulness might be a good place to start.

About the author

Bridget Dougherty is director of Beyond Stress, based in Wollongong, NSW. For further information visit