'Being accommodating will mean you’re actually able to get the best out of people' says expert
Research into mental health reveals that one in three working age Australians are managing symptoms of moderate to severe depression or anxiety.
The study ‘All Worked Up’ Australia by Wysa, a global provider of mental health support, included 2000 Australians aged 16 to 65 and suggests that the numbers of people who currently suffer is higher than reported in the 2022 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) study, which found 16.8% to be living with an anxiety disorder and 7.5% with depression.
“It will take time for the impact of COVID to work through,” says Sharon Lawn, professor at Flinders University in the College of Medicine and Public Health.
“It disrupted people's usual flow of life and the impact of that - not just on people’s personal lives but their work too - has a long tail in the same way that things like bushfire events do. People are still impacted years later, and then today add to that the multiple increases in home mortgage rates and we're in an incredible time of flux.”
Wellbeing, talent retention and productivity
Cumulatively, that unsettledness creates a situation where negative experiences that people may previously have been able to brush off become harder to rationalise – and that can easily impact people at work, says Lawn, who’s also on the Board of Mental Health Australia, as well as being executive director at Lived Experience Australia which provides advocacy to government for consumers around mental health reform.
Organisations have a significant role to play in helping employees cope during times of mental health issues, she says, and while that takes a level of commitment from an employer, it can pay benefits in terms of talent retention and productivity.
“It makes sense for organisations to acknowledge that people’s wellbeing is just as important as the actual skills they bring to their roles,” says Lawn.
“An employer who’s aware and sensitive, and has a good level of understanding, compassion and patience, will see a return on investment. Organisations spend so much time training and orienting people, as well as investing in ongoing professional development, let alone the admin to get people recruited – it makes sense to look after and actually keep people.”
Culture and structure help support employees
What Covid has done in particular, she says, is bring disruption for people who’d “possibly not explicitly thought about their own mental health and wellbeing before” but who have subsequently started to feel the impact.
From an employer’s perspective, one way of supporting employees experiencing mental health challenges, she says, is by having a strong team structure and culture.
“A core focus for any organisation would be that managers or supervisors play a pastoral role,” says Lawn. “This would mean tapping into what their people’s needs are, what their workload is, and understanding what can be adjusted to help them - for instance if they’re navigating being a family carer while juggling their work.
“Being accommodating will mean you’re actually able to get the best out of people.”
Training for those in pastoral role
To assist managers in their ability in a pastoral capacity, specific training is essential, says Lawn.
“There are many people who are promoted into senior roles literally because they’ve been in a workplace longer and they know the elements of the organisation more. That doesn't mean that they necessarily have the skills for managing people, so training around this is vital.
“In fact, having those skills is as important as knowing the business of an organisation and that way employers will get the best out of people.”
Destigmatising mental health issues in workplaces
Creating a workplace culture in which mental health issues aren’t stigmatised is an important part of helping address the problem for employees too, says Lawn, whose research has included looking at the workplace environments of veterans and first responders.
“In some cases the cultural aspects of workplaces mean some don’t feel able to talk about mental health issues because of the fear it might jeopardise their ability for promotion and career prospects.
“Some of the best examples though in organisations that are working to destigmatise are where people in leadership roles can be frank and open and inclusive. I've seen some that find a way to identify ways in which they themselves have struggled at times – and I’ve also seen how effective that can be.”