Improving Workplace Mental Health in Australia

31 August, 2021

34 mins read

Workplace Mental Health

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Employers play an important role in reducing the stigma around mental health, especially within the workplace. Employee mental health is a challenge many workplaces are facing.

In fact, 7,200 Australians are compensated for workplace related mental health issues every year — equating to 6% of all compensation claims annually. These numbers are far less surprising when you learn one in two Australians will suffer from a mental health condition in their lifetime.

So, how do we remove the stigma around mental health and create a mentally healthy workplace?

The below are steps businesses can take towards promoting a healthy workplace, including implementing mental health policies, encouraging wellness activities and increasing resources available to those who may be struggling with stress and their own mental health.

We’ve covered everything from employee and employer rights around mental health to how the RUOk? Day organisation can help your business bring mental health to the forefront of workplace conversations.

Why is workplace mental health important?

Most Australian adults spend more waking hours in their workplace than anywhere else, so it’s important workplaces support the mental heath needs of their employees. In fact there are now links between positive mental health and increased employee productivity — who doesn’t want that!

On the flip side, unaddressed mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, often lead to increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, declining profit and an overall drop in workplace morale.

It is estimated poor workplace mental health costs Aussie businesses about $11 billion each year.

In Australia, an estimated 3.2 days are lost per worker per year due to workplace related stress. In fact, 3 to 4 sick days are taken each month for untreated depression and anxiety in Aussie businesses. Despite these facts, The Black Dog Institute has found 50% of managers think no-one in their workplace is suffering from a mental illness.

Top benefits of mentally healthy workplaces.

1. Improved productivity.

Improved productivity is just one of the benefits of mentally healthy workplaces. Studies have shown those working for businesses who support workplace mental are often more productive and feel more motivated in their roles.

2. Attract and retain the top talent.

Those in workplaces where mental health is supported are less likely to leave. They often feel more comfortable, supported and overall happier in their position.

Studies show 9 in 10 employees believe workplace mental health is important and would rather work for businesses who have mental health strategies in place over those who do not.

Tips to create a mentally healthy workplace.

Australians have attributed their workplace as a key contributor to their overall wellbeing. For most, work provides a sense of purpose, acceptance and opportunities for development — all of which have been linked to uplifted mental health. But, there are more things employees can do to stimulate these feelings within their team. A study by PwC has found for every $1 a business invests into creating a mentally heathy workplace they can expect to receive an average return of investment (ROI) of $2.30.

Train managers and team leaders in mental health.

Training managers in workplace mental health is a great way to create a mentally healthy workplace. This type of training helps managers and leaders identify, manage and help prevent mental health conditions within their workplace.

During these training sessions, managers and leaders are taught how to have those tough conversations about mental health and are often provided with resources to pass the training onto employees. Creating an open conversation about conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can help reduce stigma within the team and reduce job stress leading to improved productivity.

There are plenty of professional mental health training programs available in Australia for little to no cost. Depending on your organisations needs, there are in-person, online, self-guided, eLearning and mixed-mode training courses available.

Create a mental health policy.

Workplace mental health polices are the best way to ensure your workplace is doing everything it can to support the mental health of your employees. They outline strategies used to deal with mental health issue within the workplace, including business goals, responsibilities and communication guidelines.

Whilst it may seem like a hard and time consuming task to create a mental health policy, it doesn’t have to be. Headsup, a Beyond Blue initiative, have put together a simple guide to help businesses create a mental health policy.

Create a diverse workforce

Embracing an openly diverse workforce where employees feel comfortable in respectfully expressing their characteristics and true selves is a key component in promoting health in the workplace. It is important to note, diversity in this instance is not exclusive of cultural background and heritage. In the broader context, diversity expands to characteristics such as similar trauma experiences, gender identity, medical diagnoses, age, social and ethnic backgrounds, religion and more.

Ways to promote inclusivity can start with acknowledging holidays and days of recognition for different backgrounds and experiences, including (but again definitely not limited to), National Pregnancy & Infancy Loss Remembrance Day (15 October), Diwali (a major Hindu religious festival), Pride Week, NAIDOC Week and more. Give staff an easy, judgement-free way to recommend days or occasions of importance to them, whether it be a simple Google Form, an email inbox or a dedicated team. Remember, there are plenty of freely available resources online for most of these significant dates.

Implement flexible working arrangements

The traditional 9-to-5 workday is becoming less and less common, with more workplaces now offering flexible working arrangements. Flexible working arrangements allow employees to have a better work life balance, therefore reducing job stress and improving overall team morale. There is an undeniable link to healthy work life balance and workplace mental health and wellbeing.

What are flexible working arrangements?

Flexible working arrangements are changes made to the traditional working day to better accommodate an individual’s personal needs. This can include adjusting working hours to accommodate childcare needs, providing equipment for working remotely or reduced working weeks.

A survey conducted by HRDive found that 48% of people with flexible working arrangements rated their work-life balance as very good or excellent.

Flexible working arrangements to support work life balance.

Introducing wellness behaviours.

Wellness behaviours are a key component of mentally healthy workplaces, and no, we don’t mean compulsory yoga classes. Wellness behaviours are introducing practices or traditions into the organisation focussed around increasing the overall wellbeing of the team. They can include activities and processes such as:

  • Walking meetings.
  • Offering stand-up desks.
  • Dedicate screen breaks.
  • Switching to healthier office snacks.
  • Creating a sporting team.
  • On-site meditation.
  • Encourage people to use the stairs.
  • Paying your employees to volunteer.

Best practice is to survey your own team to find out which wellness behaviours they think would best promote health in your particular workplace.

Your rights and mental health .

Employee rights and mental health.

Sadly, since the introduction of the Fair Work Act 2009, disability (which includes mental illness) has been the most common reason behind discrimination complaints submitted to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Employees are protected from discrimination regarding their mental health under Australian Workplace Law, specifically the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (cth) from recruitment onwards. Employees have the right to be protected from discrimination, the right to privacy and the right to a healthy and safe workplace.

It is important to note, employees are not legally obligated to tell their employer about any mental health conditions they may have. However, it doesn’t mean discussing your mental health condition with your employer is not a good idea.

Speaking with your employer if you are struggling with stress, anxiety or depression may help as they may be able to provide you more support in the workplace. Remember, employers are required to keep the discussion to themselves.

If you are unsure about your rights as an employee or feel you have been discriminated against, get in contact with your local lawyer for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Employer rights and mental health.

Employers must tread carefully when it comes to mental health. They are legally, Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, required to prevent harm to the health and safety of employees — this includes mental health. An employer is not allowed to discriminate against, harass or victimise an employee because of a mental health condition.

In saying this, employers can legally enquire about the mental health of an employee for legitimate purposes. But what are legitimate purposes?

  • Determine if the employee can perform the inherent requirements of the job.
  • Discuss reasonable adjustments which may be needed to perform the role.
  • To establish facts for entitlements such as sick leave, workers’ compensation and other.

The best way to treat mental illness in the workplace is to treat it the same way you would a visible disability. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workspace, both mentally and physically. Creating an overall mentally healthy workplace is the best way to help those with mental illness.

If you are unsure about your rights as an employer, get in contact with your local lawyer for the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Small Business Owners & Mental Health

Small business owners (SBOs) are often overlooked when it comes to mental health, putting the needs of their employee above their own. In a recent report prepared for the Prepared for Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, nearly 1 in 3 SBOs were diagnosed in the 2019/20 year with either high stress, anxiety or depression. Most commonly, mental health conditions were brought on as a result of financial stress, such as being able to pay mortgages or fund children’s education.

The main issue brought to light during the study was the SBOs’ lack of strategies to deal with mental illnesses, with many downplaying the impact running their business had on their own mental health.

Managing mental health as a small business owner:

Online support.

In Australia, we are fortunate to have access to a plethora of free online support for mental health conditions, including for small business owners. 9% of SBOs admit they simply ‘cope’ when their mental health takes a turn for the worst. In saying this, it was found they are highly likely to search online for support, but few had accessed the resources available to them.

Organisations such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline and The Black Dog Institute have online resources available for small businesses to access from anywhere in Australia. These organisation can often put you in contact with professional support in your local area tailored to your needs.

Outsource to reduce stress.

It is not uncommon for SBOs to find themselves stretched too thin within their business, often trying to do the work of 5 people themselves. Whilst this may be viable during the start-up phase, it quickly becomes a problem with many SBOs suffering from high stress, working long hours and eventually burning out.

When financially viable, looking to outsource certain elements of your business can help alleviate stress. Some of the most common tasks to outsource include, social media management and marketing, website services, administration support and payroll.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle.

There is no denying the link between positive mental health and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle starts with implementing simple lifestyle changes. These can include adding a brisk walk or some light exercise into your daily routine and ensuring you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet.

Employee wellbeing in 2020/21

As Australia plunged into lockdown, businesses had to learn to adapt, and fast. Home office supplies, some foods and toilet paper all became hot commodities country wide.

Aussies’ work and personal lives as they knew it were turned upside down. There is no doubt the recent events 2020/2021 have not only changed the workforce, but the world as we know it.

Naturally, it has also impacted mental health and wellbeing around the world. Since March 2020, more than 15 million Medicare subsidised relating to mental illnesses have been processed. Sadly, this in an increase of 20% from the year prior. Employers are now faced with the challenge of promoting mentally healthy workplace in a virtual environment.

3 ways to promote positive mental health during lockdown.

1. Host a virtual team building event.

Hosting a virtual team event is easier now than ever before. Just because you can’t be together physically, doesn’t mean you can’t host a great team event for your employees. Team events help build relationships, increase productivity, improve communication and boost morale.

5 virtual team building activities to try:

  1. An online lunch date. Once a month, get together (online) and have lunch together, allowing your team to expense up to a certain amount.
  2. Learning circles. This one is great for larger organisations with distinct departments. Nominate a willing member from each department to teach an element of their job to another team. For example, an SEO team may teach the accounts team SEO basics.
  3. DIY sip and paint. Sip and paints are all the rage, but did you know you can do them virtually? Send each of your team a canvas and some paints, find a YouTube painting tutorial, book in a teams date and off you go!
  4. Online office games. Try out; they have plenty of virtual office games on offer — including an escape room.
  5. Trivia. Break into teams and see who is the trivia master.
Online team events.

2. Send small gifts to their homes.

Sending a small gift to employees stuck at home is a great way to boost morale. The best part is, you can support small local businesses at the same time.

Gifts you can send employees in lockdown:

  • Chocolates.
  • Flowers.
  • A good book.
  • Hampers.
  • Uber Eats vouchers.

3. Simply check in.

Checking in with your coworkers is more meaningful than you may think. A simple ‘how are you doing?’ text or a short call can mean the world to those stuck in a lockdown.

Knowing someone cares can make a big difference to someone’s wellbeing. If you’re worried one of your coworkers may be suffering from a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, it may be time to ask them how they’re doing. These sorts of conversations can be tough and intimidating, but the most important thing to remember is to keep it natural. If they don’t want to speak to you about it, that’s okay. Maybe you can suggest someone they may be more comfortable around or provide the details of a professional service.

What is R U OK Day?

R U OK? Day is a reminder to check in with those around you, making sure they’re doing okay. It occurs in September every year and Aussies are encouraged to wear yellow on the day to show their support for the cause. In 2021, R U OK? Day falls on 9 September. The R U OK? Day organisation aims to increase awareness and reduce stigma around mental health conditions, including depression.

4 ways your business can get involved in R U OK? Day.

1. Wear yellow on the 9 September.

The easiest way to show your support on R U OK? Day in 2021 is to wear yellow. Setup an event within your workplace and ask all your employees to wear yellow to bring awareness and break down the stigma surrounding mental health conditions in the workplace.

If you have a business social media page, take a team photo and post it on your Instagram, Facebook or other accounts to spread awareness. Ensure you add the hashtags #RUOKDay and #ruok to your post to increase the reach.

2. Put up a kindness board in your office.

Putting up a kindness board in your office is a simple and cost-effective way to spread awareness about R U OK? Day and promote mental health in the workplace. Encourage your employees to leave kind messages for each other on the board.

All you’ll need to make your kindness board is:

  • A small cork board.
  • Some thumb pins or small tacks.
  • Sticky notes or small pieces of paper.
  • Pens or markers.

3. Educate your employees about workplace mental health.

Workplace mental health is often an unspoken topic. The R U OK? Day organisation is trying to change this, bringing the ‘are you okay?’ conversation to forefront of workplace culture.

To spark the education, you could send out an email with resources about how to start a conversation about mental health or host a morning tea for your team with speeches about mental health issues.

If you are unsure, or feel you are unequipped to educate your employees, jump onto the ruok website. They have lots of free downloadable resources to help businesses reduce the stigma of mental health in their workplace.

4. Host a Sip With Me event.

Sip with me events encourage co-workers to grab a cuppa and have a chat about their wellbeing. It’s a very simple and easy way to discuss workplace mental health.

You can register your sip with me event online with the RUOK? Day organisation to receive helpful digital resources to aid you in hosting a successful event. The best part of sip with me events is they can be virtual. So, even people who work remotely or are unable to attended due to current restrictions are able to participate.

Sip with me at a local cafe.

Signs someone may need support in your workplace.

Knowing when to ask someone how they are going is often easier said than done. Many of us may avoid the topic for fear of being too intrusive or seen as ‘nosey.’ So, how do you know when someone in your workplace may need some extra support?

The R U OK organisation has put together resources to help employers identify when an employee may not be OK. If your coworkers show two or more of these signs over the space of a fortnight, it may be time to ask ‘R U OK?’

  • Changes in physical appearance.
  • Changes in usual mood, they may seem more irritable or unsettled than normal.
  • Changes in behaviour — are they disinterested in things that would normally excite them?
  • Changes in how they express their thoughts and emotions.

It is important to note these may not be the only indicators someone in your workplace is not okay.

How to start a conversation about mental health.

Starting a conversation about mental health can be tricky. Many feel they may not be knowledgeable enough about the subject fearing they may give misinformation or harmful advice. The fact is, more often than not, people are not looking for advice or a solution to their problem; they’re simply looking for an ear to listen and care.

Conversation starters:

  • How are you going?
  • What’s been happening lately?
  • Hey, I’ve noticed you haven’t quite been yourself lately. How are you going?
  • I’ve noticed you seem really run down recently — how are you traveling?
  • You’re a lot quieter than usual; is everything okay?

While you’re having the conversation, ensure you’re giving them your undivided attention. Don’t try and rush the conversation. Encourage them to take action. Ask ‘where can we go from here?’, ‘what is a good first step we can take?’ or simply ‘what can I do to help you through this?’ Where possible, encourage them to speak to your dedicated mental health officer or HR department. Be sure to check in a few days after your chat, ask them how they’re doing, not only just it confirm you care, but it can also be a good way to open a conversation about seeking out professional help.

Support and services available in Australia for mental health.

Support for businesses

1300 Mental Health

Ph: 1300 642 255

Queensland Mental Health Commission Handbook for Small Business

Download Here

Support for individuals


Ph: 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service

ph: 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue

ph: 1300 224 636

SANE Australia

ph: 1800 18 SANE (7263)

If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental health condition know there is help available, call lifeline on 13 11 14 for immediate support. The information contained in this article is for general use only and should not replace any professional advice. If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace please contact one of the above organisations.

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