October 10th is World Mental Health Day, a global day of action that aims to raise awareness and to mobilise efforts in support of mental health. As Australia’s Covid-19 recovery gets underway, taking action to support organisational health and wellbeing is more important than ever. Burnout, stress, and anxiety were already significant workplace issues before the onset of Covid-19. Compounded by the global pandemic’s mental health impact, the next few months could be enormously challenging as Australian’s navigate issues and opportunities related to a return to physical workplaces.
As a provider of workplace mental health and wellbeing solutions, Aspect Group has seen consistent patterns emerge over the last 18 months in the requests we receive from workplaces and leaders as they look for ways to support their employees during the various challenges faced due to Covid-19.
These challenges include:
* Transitioning to remote work,
* coping with uncertainty,
* adapting to frequent changes at and outside of work,
* dealing with burnout.
It has been encouraging to see many workplaces invest in training and other interventions to support the wellbeing of their teams. However, it has become increasingly clear that the fluctuating environment and resulting uncertainty, experienced both at and outside of work, is here to stay. Here are some considerations for leaders looking to support their teams.
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work
At an organisational level, it important is to recognise that every workplace is unique and requires specific actions that address their needs. Regardless of industry type or business size, reducing risk factors and enhancing factors in the work environment that contribute to positive mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start.
It’s also important to recognise that organisations are at variable stages of maturity when it comes to implementing mental health and wellbeing strategies. This is okay, as all organisations must start somewhere. For some, it can be a case of starting small and building upon what is working well.
Whilst there is benefit in responding to issues as they arise, there is clear evidence that approaching workplace mental health in a strategic manner, using an integrated approach, is more likely to achieve effective and sustainable improvement.
An integrated approach to workplace mental health
A whitepaper produced by the University of Tasmania summarises how an integrated approach to workplace mental health involves focusing on three key areas: preventing harm, promoting the positive, and responding to illness. It requires looking at your workplace mental health and wellbeing strategy holistically, not by reactively addressing issues and risks in isolation. The focus should be on minimising workplace risks to mental health, promoting positive work practices and providing support for people who are experiencing mental health issues.
Employers, managers, and supervisors all have an important role to play in reducing risk factors that are known to impact mental health and building on the positive aspects of the work environment. This extends to risks related to working from home, both in times of lockdown and in the following phases of return to the physical work environment or hybrid work. Such actions need to be adapted to the specificities of the workplace, considering different role requirements, workers who may be at higher risk or particularly vulnerable. For example, older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions, may be at a higher risk of isolation, those with caring responsibilities may have increased home responsibilities and the anxiety experienced due to potential job loss or reduced income needs to be considered.
SafeWork Australia, Comcare and state/territory regulators have a range of guidance material and tools to help employers adopt a risk management approach to manage both physical and psychological hazards.
Promote the positive
In addition to maintaining wellbeing, increasing workplace protective factors has been shown to offset some operational demands or risk factors within the workplace. These factors include increasing job control, having role clarity, supportive management, flexible work practices that accommodate individual needs and positive working relationships. Workplaces can also play a role in providing opportunities and an environment that fosters good physical and psychological health. Workplace health promotion strategies that include both physical activity incentives and mental health awareness and education assist development of employee wellbeing, known to be a protective resource.
Support those with mental illness
Workplaces can play an important role in encouraging employees to seek help early for mental illness. Key recommendations include providing mental health training programs for leaders and staff helps to foster a work environment where people feel supported to seek help early. Ensuring clear roles, responsibilities and processes for supporting employees with mental illness; and implementing flexible work practices to facilitate accommodation of individual needs. This not only benefits employees and their families but is also good for business, as supporting employee recovery promotes productivity.
What can leaders do?
Leaders play a vital role in creating a mentally healthy work environment. Research consistently tells us that one of the most influential factors on a workplace’s ability to thrive is regular mental health and wellbeing training for leaders to build confidence and capability. As workplaces continue to change and we’re all adapting to different ways of working, the importance of supportive leadership and supervisory practices has been highlighted. Support from managers and supervisors is an established protective factor that reduces the impact of psychosocial risks on employees’ mental health.
Communication is key
Maintain regular communication with your employees. Let employees know it’s okay to not be okay and strive for open, transparent communication. Deliver information in a clear, honest and straightforward way.
Address risks and enable good job design and working processes
This may include giving employees opportunities to participate in decisions that affect them, clarifying and communicating the scope of people’s roles, ensuring employees have adequate resources and skills to perform their role and monitoring the hours and the intensity of work undertaken by employees.
Leaders should speak openly about mental health support services available to employees such as encouraging employees to use the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if available and creating an internal central point of contact for employees to contact if they have any concerns.
Lead by example
As a leader, if you’re not role-modelling healthy behaviours—taking care of yourself, getting enough sleep, taking necessary breaks—then you make it very hard for others to do the same. Role-model the practices you want employees to do such as self-care strategies, and maintain work-life balance.
Communicating information and decisions with empathy, ask your team how you can best support them (and listen to answers).
Promote protective factors
Promoting employee growth, matching employee skills and strengths with tasks, and providing recognition and constructive feedback are all protective factors for mental health.\\A workplace that is able to reap the benefits of having a mentally healthy workforce is one that demonstrates authentic and visible support for the mental health and wellbeing of their employees by taking action informed by the best available evidence. Beyond meeting legal requirements, the biggest pay-off to creating a healthy workplace is that all staff – managers and workers – look forward to work and regularly give their best. We know that good work has a positive influence on a person’s mental health. It provides a routine, sense of identity and social connections. There is a very real opportunity that work can promote wellness with people finishing work at the end of the day feeling even better than when they started.
* Provision of advisory services including auditing workplace mental health strategies against established evidence-informed frameworks, psychological risk assessments, and development of workplace mental health strategy and action plan.
* Enhancing people leader capability through digital and facilitated learning.
* Workshops for employees who may be experiencing particular challenges such as those in customer-facing roles.