Opinion: Why investing in the mental health of your workforce is good for business

by External30 Jun 2015
Workplaces are still not meeting employees’ expectations in terms of mental wellbeing. Rod Gutierrez outlines what can be done.

Mental health is a growing issue for our communities. Expenditure on mental health-related services in Australia has increased significantly in recent years with $7.6 billion being spent in 2012-13 on mental health-related services according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

This figure relates to $332 per person - an increase on the $302 per person in 2008-09[1].

In many cases, if not most, these health-related issues spill over into the workplace if not appropriately addressed and managed.

At any given time, 1 in 5 employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition. In Australia more than 6 million working days are lost each year due to untreated depression[2].

Research shows that for every $1 invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace, companies will experience an average of $2.30 return of investment.[3]

Even though the benefits are clear, evidence suggests that workplaces are not meeting employees’ expectations in terms of mental wellbeing. A survey into the state of mental health in the Australian workforce found that 91% of employees surveyed believe mental health is important at work, but only 52% of those consider their workplace to actually be mentally healthy[4].
So why isn’t this issue being tackled with greater force?
Firstly, organisations still have a relatively vague understanding of the types of factors that affect mental health at work. Risk factors such as bullying, harassment, and work pressures and demands are often incorrectly lumped into one category. Even though they are very separate issues, they are often managed under the one umbrella of “mental health at work".
Risk factors affecting a person’s mental health are extremely complex. A combination of an individual’s psychological make-up and their work environment needs to be investigated more closely to appropriately address issues of workplace mental wellbeing.  

At the individual level, organisations tend to rely on theories of resilience and coping as a way to assist people with dealing with the pressures at work.

However, when we look more closely at these programs, it becomes apparent that they do little to mitigate the conditions that underlie or create worker distress. Instead, they aim to change the individual's reactions to those conditions, rather than to systematically improve those conditions directly.

The current issues and the challenges surrounding workplace mental health are related to our lack of understanding of the nature of psychological injury as well as mental health issues at large, and the critical factors that see us where we are today. In the future, it is expected that we will integrate many of these factors that are currently treated as independent issues, bringing them together into a more comprehensive, holistic understanding of mental health at work.

So what can be done to improve workplace mental health?

By acknowledging that mental health at work is a systemic  problem, not purely an individual issue, it is possible to see how both organisational and individual level interventions can coexist.

Mentally healthy workplaces demonstrate a systemic mode of thinking about psychological wellbeing in the workplace. These organisations don’t just rely on individual level interventions, but are able to understand that mental health in the workplace is much more than just sending workers home safe and injury free. They exhibit genuine care for the welfare of their people.

Organisational culture needs to be emphasised as the underlying fabric for mental wellbeing in order to see wide-spread cultural change. Furthermore, increased ownership needs to be seen over the underlying risk factors rather than a focus on individual outcomes.  

In order to achieve a mentally healthy workplace, organisations can start by assessing their level of reliance on individual level programs and interventions, as opposed to cultural and systemic management. It is important that there is a balance between these two levels of intervention. It is also crucial that going forward, workplaces start to shift the balance more towards organisational, systemic interventions.

An assessment to understand the level that leadership is involved in monitoring and developing strategies to manage mental health in the workplace is also critical. Leaders from senior levels of the organisation need to understand and to be involved in the design of the solutions to enable viable change.

Finally, OHS professionals have a large role to play in commencing the dialogue with their organisational leaders, their workers and their fellow professionals about how they can take a more holistic view of the factors that impact mental health issues in the workplace. OHS professionals need to address questions such as: how do we step up to the challenge? Where do we start? What is the appetite for change like in the organisation? These are critical questions that we need to take to our organisations.

Cultural transformation must be seen across all levels of organisations in order to achieve true improvement in workplace mental health.
About the author

Dr Rod Gutierrez is the Principal Psychologist for DuPont Sustainable Solutions