It’s time for employers and organisations to transform awareness of mental health issues at work into action, and researchers are developing the tools and strategies to help make that happen.

When it comes to safety in the workplace, physical injuries resulting from accidents often come to mind faster than the psychological damage that can come from stress, bullying, or excessive workloads.

Misunderstandings around how such issues can arise in a workplace, or how existing issues can be mishandled by employers and other staff, is something that we can’t afford to ignore, says Adjunct Professor Angela Martin, former co-leader of the Work, Health, and Wellbeing network at the University of Tasmania.

Over the course of a lifetime, almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health issue of some kind, and the prevalence of conditions such as depression and anxiety doesn’t just affect individuals and their families – it can have a real impact on businesses and the national economy.

The annual cost to Australian workplaces of absenteeism, reduced productivity, and compensation claims due to mental illness is estimated at $11 billion, and the cost to the national economy exceeds $60 billion a year.

Smaller businesses in Australia typically lack the resources available to larger organisations in dealing with mental health, such as HR staff, and managers can face intense demands and stresses that sometimes put their own mental health at risk.

Recognising these unique challenges, Professor Martin brought together a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to create a pioneering mental health promotion program called Business in Mind (BIM).

BIM was informed by experts in business management, clinical psychology, and public health at the University of Tasmania, as well as an organisational psychologist from Griffith University in Queensland.

The early stages of the project were focussed on Tasmanian businesses. Partner organisations included WorkCover Tasmania, the Tasmanian Chambers of Commerce, the Tasmanian Council of Social Service, and the Mental Health Council of Tasmania.  

The BIM team developed, trialled, and nationally distributed a workplace mental health toolkit to managers of small and medium businesses, with the help of Australia’s foremost mental health NGO, beyondblue.

Initially available as a DVD with additional downloadable resources, all content was made available for free in late 2013 through the beyondblue ‘Heads Up’ website. Videos and other resources can now be found at the Business in Mind website.

When the team studied the effects of BIM on individual managers, they found that levels of psychological distress were substantially reduced upon completion of the program.

Converting awareness to action

According to Professor Martin, when it comes to creating workplaces that promote mental health, Australia has made some important first steps.

“Ten years ago, there was almost no recognition of how mental health and work would relate to each other.”

Today, she sees a developing awareness of the importance of psychological health, and a recognition that workplaces have a role to play.

“We're in the awareness stage, but that needs to be followed up by actions and a number of cycles of evaluation that go with the strategies that are supported by research,” says Professor Martin.

“The first thing we would want to see is that the organisation has some sort of plan or strategy in relation to the mental health of staff, and that this strategy is integrated with whatever they’re doing in occupational health and safety and HR.”

The business case for taking action is strong. According to a 2014 analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers, for every $1 invested in improving workplace mental health, a business can expect, on average, a $2.30 return.

Nonetheless, for many organisations, planning and implementing these changes can seem overwhelming – sometimes to the point of paralysis.

To help address this challenge, the Work, Health and Wellbeing network brought together national and international researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers to identify priorities for managing mental health in the workplace. The results of this workshop have now been made available online.

“We wanted to provide a framework for action that sets out key priorities for Australian workplaces,” says Professor Martin.

The priorities identified in the workshop were grouped into three themes: preventing harm, promoting the positive, and managing illness.

When implemented together in a systemic way, these strategies reinforce one another, enabling employers and managers to identify and address psychological hazards in the workplace as readily as they do physical ones.

Some of these hazards can vary from one organisation and industry to the next, but others crop up almost universally, such as having little control over workload when high demands are being placed on you, feelings of job insecurity, and instances of bullying.

“We’re looking to reduce risks that may actually cause a higher likelihood of experiencing depression and anxiety,” says Professor Martin.

The positive side of things

While organisations need to keep abreast of anything that could be causing psychological harm to their staff, they also need to look for positives in the work environment, and seek to maximise them.

“It’s all about how you can create an environment where people’s strengths are used in the work they’re doing and in the composition of the teams they’re involved in, and where people have a level of resilience to challenges,” says Professor Martin.

“If you can see a connection between what you do and how that impacts on other people or other aspects of social and economic life, then you feel there's some kind of meaning in what you're doing.”

At the same time as maintaining a mentally healthy workplace, organisations need to be ready to mental health issues when they arise.  

“Any one of us can experience a mental illness, and it can develop because of a range of other factors that aren’t anything to do with work,” says Professor Martin.

Effective management of mental illness at work requires clear policies on supporting employees from the time they disclose their mental health problem, while they continue to work, or when they return to work after taking leave.

Education around mental health is a high priority, as this can help dismantle the stigma that often discourages people from disclosing an existing issue to their manager.

“With mental health in general – not just in organisations, but in society – people don't see it as ‘real’ in the way they do with other parts of the body,” says Professor Martin.

“It’s really concerning, and reducing the stigma is obviously a big thing that helps with the ‘invisibility’ of mental health.”

Key facts

  • In a given year, one in five Australians will experience a mental health condition. 
  • 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. 
  • The impacts of mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $11 billion a year. 
  • 328,000 people visited the Heads Up website featuring the BIM toolkit. 

The BIM toolkit has been downloaded more than 5,000 times.

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Interested in partnering with the University of Tasmania? Find out more here.

About Professor Angela Martin

Professor Martin completed her PhD in organisational psychology in 2002 and has taught in management and psychology courses at four Australian universities since 1996. She joined the University of Tasmania in 2005. Prior to working as a full-time academic, Professor Martin project managed an Australian Research Council (ARC) Industry Partnership at the University of Queensland investigating organisational change within public sector organisations. She has also worked as a policy/research officer in rural health, media and communications, economic development, industrial relations and vocational education, as a client service officer for Legal Aid Queensland and as a volunteer counsellor and trainer for the Queensland AIDS Council.

View Professor Angela Martin's full researcher profile