How to have difficult conversations around mental health comfortably

Here are three ways we can raise mental health awareness at work, and bust the mental health myths holding us back

How to have difficult conversations around mental health comfortably

While record investment in mental health can only be a good thing, the recent announcement from the Victorian State budget only focuses on the treatment of mental health illnesses. We need to be taking more preventative measures, such as improving the general mental health and wellbeing of your employees, if we are to help avoid the need for such services and improve outcomes for all Australians.

In recent years, we’ve seen widespread global progress on the road to eliminating stigma, yet mental health statistics show that something is still holding us back from talking about the issue comfortably.

Untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion each year, and 35 per cent of employees still hide their mental health concerns from their colleagues.

But open lines of communication are key to better workplace wellbeing, as well as key to helping employees and leadership get the support they need. Here are three ways we can raise mental health awareness at work, and bust the mental health myths holding us back:

1. If you can talk about performance, you can talk about wellbeing
In any successful and evolving business environment, talking about performance and work-related grievances is key to improvement. And for the most part, we seem to do it quite well. Almost half of all engaged employees receive weekly feedback, and a whopping 92 per cent of staff cite appropriately-delivered negative feedback as an effective way to improve work outcomes.

And it’s not just employees who benefit. Managers also show an increase of almost 9 per cent in profitability when they receive feedback on their strengths.

But while we may find it easy to talk about what is and isn’t working on a business and performance front, we still find it hard to admit when we’re struggling with our mental resilience, stress levels and emotions.

2. Tackling topics from the top down
Stereotypes around who ‘can and can’t’ suffer from mental health issues are still prevalent, despite an increasing awareness that no one is immune. Business mogul and billionaire James Packer’s recent resignation from his position of director at Crown Resorts is an important example of how mental health issues do not discriminate. In fact, some studies have even shown that CEOs are twice as likely to be affected by depression as the general public.

Two key insights can be derived from this. First, that greater awareness of mental health and more communication on the issue across all business roles is vital. And second, that by encouraging leadership to open up about their mental wellbeing, we may lift barriers to company-wide comfort of the topic at hand.

Leaders in six of Australia’s largest professional services firms did exactly that recently, speaking to BOSS magazine about depression and anxiety. By breaking the silence, they hoped to normalise the conversation and encourage others to seek support. “People think leaders need to be infallible,” said PWC Partner Judy Sullivan, affirming that by talking about her mental health, “it is giving permission for everyone to talk about it.”

And EY Partner Tony Wiedermann noted that “people really want leaders to come forward and say: you know what, I have dealt with [depression] myself; this is how I manage it.”

3. Smashing the mental health stigma
In the aforementioned BOSS interviews, KPMG Partner Paul Howes stated that “as a society, we’re still a long way off being at the point we need to be to actually recognise that this is not a weakness.”

Men in particular tend to be less comfortable with mental health discussions, and although ideas of masculinity are changing, men are less likely to report their issues in fear of detailed follow-up conversations. Catering to each individual’s unique coping mechanism and pointing them in the direction of support that will help their personal circumstances is key.

Just as most of us suffer from physical ill-health every now and again, around 20 per cent of us will also experience a mental illness in any given year. So, implementing better workplace wellbeing strategies, and encouraging and enabling better communication, is imperative for a supportive and productive workplace.

Mental health first aid and workplace wellbeing training is one way to ensure that all your staff are aware of the definition of mental health, the facts around mental health and the broad range of ways in which mental health examples can occur – all whilst learning practical ways to have the conversation comfortably.

Phillipa Wilson is the founder and managing director of Premium Health, an RTO that delivers premium health outcomes within Australian workforces including mental health and wellbeing training.


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