The barriers between our work and home lives are becoming more blurred. Improvements in technology have seen work become more portable, the expectation to do more with less is commonplace, and it’s making us stressed. Today, 15% of depression is caused by the workplace. The good news is there is a lot we can do about it.

Associate Professor of mental health (Menzies Institute for Medical Research) Kristy Sanderson, is concerned with what employers can do to offer more mentally healthy workplaces, and what employees can do to become more resilient to job stress.

One of the most important things is recovery time, which can include short-term breaks from work. But currently, there are barriers to asking for this. There is a stigma around asking for time off for mental health, said Associate Professor Sanderson.

“Some forms of mental illness, like depression and anxiety, are very common health problems, and some can be prevented. There is a clear benefit to employers in facilitating mentally healthy workplaces. 

“The loss of productivity caused by psychological stress is expensive and it goes beyond the individual. It affects the whole team, particularly if the individual is in a management position. 

“Alternatively, people who are happy are more productive, innovative and creative. These things are essential for knowledge economy jobs."

According to Associate Professor Sanderson, there is a lot that employers can do to facilitate a team with optimum mental health. 

“It requires a whole of organisation approach. Employers need to be open to discussions about how people are feeling and be flexible in the type of supports they offer. For some this could be recovery time, for others it could be temporary changes to the way they work.

“Colleagues need to be aware of the symptoms of psychological stress and know what they can say and do to help someone displaying symptoms. It can be as simple as asking someone how they feel. That simple question can transform a life. Individuals need to recognise the symptoms in themselves and ask for time out.

The loss of productivity in the workplace caused by psychological stress is expensive, and affects entire teams.

Mental health is a continuum with optimum mental health at one end, and clinical illness at the other. We want to help people move closer towards the positive end.

Some symptoms include losing the ability to have fun and find pleasure in things you normally enjoy, having your personal and social roles interfered with, depressed mood, disruption in sleep or appetite and thinking slowly. 

“Ignoring these symptoms can have serious long-term consequences. Once people have a collection of these symptoms over a period of two weeks or longer, they can be considered to have a clinical illness. 

“When a clinical illness develops, chemical changes occur in the brain, and some people are unable to return to exactly how they were before they became ill.” 

Associate Professor Sanderson, with colleagues across the University, has just completed a five-year study of a workplace with 30,000 employees to determine ways to facilitate mentally healthy workplaces.

We found that an imbalance between the amount of effort an employee put in and the reward they felt they received for that effort was the most significant determinant of psychological stress.

“By offering a health-promotion program and some flexibility to engage in healthy lifestyle activities like increasing exercise, reducing smoking and so on, employers can reduce that imbalance and help reduce people’s stress. 

“The perception that your employer is looking out for you and has your welfare in mind has a really positive impact. And, it is something that every employer can do.” 

Associate Professor Sanderson is looking for businesses of all sizes to be involved in ongoing studies promoting mentally healthy workplaces. 

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About Associate Professor Kristy Sanderson

Associate Professor Sanderson's research profile is in the epidemiology and economic burden of mental disorders and related chronic diseases. As a psychiatric epidemiologist her research focuses on furthering our understanding of how mental health conditions impact on people's functioning, quality of life, and healthy lifestyle behaviours, with a particular interest in the inter-relationships between work, health, and productivity. She has published two of the most cited papers on depression and presenteeism, and recent and current research includes: a novel modelling study to explore improved management of presenteeism in employees with depression; an evaluation of a workplace health promotion program across a public sector workforce; a randomized controlled feasibility trial of a telephone-delivered psychological intervention for depression post MI, with Associate Professor Sanderson leading the work on impact of comorbid depression on employment and quality of life in post-MI populations; a randomised controlled trial of a workplace mental health promotion intervention in small business; and a pilot feasibility RCT of mindfulness in the workplace. She has a strong focus on understanding the types of evidence that will help employers engage with health and mental health interventions. Much of her research is policy-driven by the needs of the partner organisations.

View Associate Professor Kristy Sanderson's full researcher profile