Opinion: Destigmatising mental health issues in the workplace

by Contributor10 Oct 2016
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"

Whatever happened to Aussie resilience? I remember a time when a bloke cutting timber nicked himself and stopped the bleeding with electrical tape. It wasn’t so long ago that my wife delivered our seventh child unaided and unmedicated, like all the births before it. Have we become less resilient, less tough, less strong or is it something else?

Stress is the opposite of resilience. Tough times come, harsh events hammer us and we cannot maintain our strength in the face of it. We are worn down. Or if we have not changed, then our environment must have. I make this assumption because stress is now the number one claim in the health insurance industry, costing twice as much as back injuries.

Our working hours are up year on year. The Australia Institute believes that Australians work the highest number of hours in the developed world. The pace of change is relentless. We must be in a state of continual learning to just stand still.

Maybe neither we nor our environment have changed. Perhaps medical science and public attitude have finally caught up with the truth – we were this stressed out all along – only now it’s OK to admit it. Yes, I think that might be closer to the truth. I think Australians are just as resilient now as ever before, but it’s OK to admit when we’re not coping. At least I hope that’s true.

A recent study by Curtin University found that in the face of a disaster, 72% of the population bounces back quickly (within a week). By disaster they mean a 9/11, or a tsunami, or an earthquake. When I first saw that number I was shocked. A full three quarters of us just ‘bounce back’. Boom. Another 18% take several months to recover. But overall, there you have it, 90% of us have resilience. While just a sliver of the population struggle more permanently with recovering, that is they are traumatised, the statistics are showing that the stressed are taking time off from work.

One of the most helpful things a workplace can do is destigmatise mental health issues. It’s time we recognised mental health is just as vital as physical health, and it is okay to recognise you’re not coping. Of course I’m not legitimising taking a sickie if your motive is to grab a long weekend and go fishing. But the truly stressed must learn to decompress, and the workplace must help employees to do this.

About the author
Dr Robert Holmes is the people and change consulting lead at RSM Australia. RSM is a full service national accounting and advisory firm delivering expert corporate financial and advisory accounting services to clients across diverse industry sectors. Its one-firm structure means clients can more readily connect to its extensive national and international networks, expertise and industry experience. Nationally RSM has 29 offices, combined with over 90 years’ experience. Its network spans across 120 countries and comprises 763 offices.



  • by Alan Whitley 10/10/2016 10:40:02 PM

    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