Mental health: How to remove the stigma

One in five Australians suffer from mental health issues

Mental health: How to remove the stigma

One in five Australians suffer from mental health issues and, unsurprisingly, the pandemic has only made things worse. Recent medical research from The Black Dog Institute (BDI) found that 75% of employees have felt their mental wellbeing plummet during the COVID-19 chaos – with many left ‘feeling uncertain about the future’.

BDI says mental illness is the leading cause of absence and long-term incapacity in the workplace. With that in mind, how can employers foster conversations around mental wellbeing and create an environment where workers feel safe speaking up?

HRD spoke to Leighton Hellem-Williams, BDI’s workplace engagement manager and a speaker at this year’s HRD Mental Health Summit Australia & NZ. She welcomes the fact many Australian workplaces are being proactive in acknowledging and validating the problems we all face.

“We also see some senior executives rising to the challenge of supporting policies, education programmes, and taking workplace mental health research findings on board to create healthier workplaces from the ground up,” she told HRD.

However, while workers’ willingness to discuss their mental wellbeing with managers and colleagues “does look to be improving”, there is still more to be done to create an environment that de-stigmatises the topic.

“Some industries and employers simply do not recognise that one-sixth of their working population will face a mental health issue any given year and that they have a part to play in the management of, and recovery from, those issues,” added Hellem-Williams.

So, if workers aren’t talking about their mental health openly, how can HR ever know if someone is struggling? Well, according to Hellem-Williams, the personal challenges may manifest in absenteeism and presenteeism. However, there are often changes in behaviour before this happens. If an employee is confident, they can discuss the issue without judgment, both parties can address the elephant in the room before it manifests into a major problem.

Failing to regularly discuss wellbeing in the workplace may mean managers aren’t aware of an issue until it affects performance.

“This means many disclosures are taking place in performance management conversations,” continued Hellem-Williams. “If this happens, it’s important to close the performance management discussion for the moment and open a discussion about health.  That disclosure changes things and it then becomes a time to discuss ways you and your workplace can support that individual to start healing.”

As for early intervention, it’s important for managers not just to point employees to mental health resources like a GP or EAP, but to understand exactly how they can use them.

“This will not only make everyone feel more confident in having mental health discussions but, by showing someone how well you know these resources, it demonstrates that you truly endorse their use. This brings authenticity, normalises seeking support and demystifies the process of help-seeking,” Hellem-Williams told HRD.

Where employees are working remotely, managers should check in regularly on their overall wellbeing - not just when something is ‘wrong’. If you feel someone in your team is overwhelmed and stressed, consider the types of support you would find valuable from your manager/workplace and come to a discussion prepared to offer options for them to consider.

Anyone daunted by the prospect of opening a discussion about mental health can book a manager support call with their EAP. That way they can prepare for a conversation ahead of time to boost their confidence in navigating the topic. BDI and other evidence-based organisations also offer excellent apps and online programmes that can support people to look after their wellbeing.

This year’s HR Mental Health Summit Australia & New Zealand will hear from industry leaders and wellbeing experts on a range of topics, including building resilience for a post-Covid era, improving the employee experience to support wellbeing, and designing wellbeing initiatives on a budget.

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