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Opinion: Destigmatising mental health issues in the workplace

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HC Online | 10 Oct 2016, 09:00 AM Agree 0
Dr Robert Holmes says it's time to destigmatise mental health issues in the workplace so that employees can feel safe enough to say "I'm not coping"
  • Alan Whitley | 10 Oct 2016, 10:40 PM Agree 0
    Dr Holmes,

    I need to take you to task about your definition of stress that suggests that it is the absence of resilience. We experience stress when we a/ assess a situation, event, encounter or moment as a threat to our health, wellbeing, livelihood, possessions or relationships and b/ conclude that we do not have the ability, resources or endeavour to counter that threat. This may be a fully considered position, an intuitive response or a subconscious process, but it is primarily based on fact, not based on our emotive resilience.

    The problem with your definition in the workplace context is that it places the burden for addressing the stress that people experience at work on the already stressed out workforce. Quite ironic when you think about it. Workplace stress researchers and academics have unanimously concluded that in almost all cases that a workforce experiences high levels of stress it is a consequence of the workplace, not the workforce. It is a management issue that needs to be addressed at an organisational level using primary interventions that reduce the sources of stress.

    We need to be very careful about the conversation we have on workplace stress. To date the HR community have been sold a pup by the mindfulness and resilience providers who suggest that they can fix the organisation's stress issues, leaving HR Directors and Managers with a warm fuzzy feeling that they are helping their employees. Of course they do nothing to address the sources of stress employees are subjected to at work, they fail to meet the the test of the Hierachy of Controls, they abdicate responsibility and shift the burden for the mental health of your workforce from the employer to the employee, and technically they fail to meet the employer's obligations for the mental health of its workforce according to our current legislation.

    Whilst our WH&S legislators make little distinction between the physical health and mental health obligations that an employer has, our regulators are playing catch up. With mental health stress claims holding the number 2 claim category position nationally (with almost as many mental health claims again rejected by our insurers for fear of bankruptcy), this is bound to change, and soon. If our regulators were across this and treated mental harm with the same prosecutive intent as they do with physical harm, our courts would be full of senior managers/executives facing charges for the injury caused on their shift.

    There is a well trodden path, with the tools and methodologies all available in the public domain, for an organisation to identify the sources of workplace stress and intervene at a primary level. Academic studies have shown, time and again, that this is the most impactfull, sustainable and cost effective approach an organisation can take. We just need to let organisations hear this message over the din being made by the resilience and mindfulness providers.

    Alan Whitley
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