Mental health: the hidden workplace crisis

1/09/2017
With an annual cost to productivity of $10.9 billion, mental health seems an obvious area for workplace reform. And yet, according to Dr Ian Williamson, the issue remains hidden in most workplaces.
 
If a person takes time off from work because of a physical condition, such as a broken leg or cancer treatment, most organisations will have HR systems that support his or her recovery – from sick leave through to flexible work arrangements.

But recent research that I worked on at Melbourne Business School’s Asia Pacific Social Impact Centre (APSIC) in partnership with SEEK Ltd shows that, for those workers with a mental health condition, even discussing it can have negative outcomes.

Mental health is a critical workplace issue because one in five of the working age population is estimated to be suffering from mental illness, with depression and anxiety the most common conditions. Unfortunately, most businesses don’t consider enhancing the mental health of their employees a priority, even though they have a legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and fair workplace.

Even worse, our research shows that individuals dealing with mental health issues can face severe stigma in the workplace. In a survey of employees, we found that respondents held significantly lower perceptions around the appropriateness of hiring or promoting individuals with a mental illness and reported substantially higher levels of interpersonal discomfort working with individuals with a mental illness rather than a physical disability.

However, on a positive note, our research did identify some steps organisations can take to address stigma and create an environment that enhances employee well-being and productivity.

First, develop a mental health policy or establish a clear governance structure for mental health issues within the organisation. We found that greater employee awareness of the organisation’s formal mental health policy was associated with lower stigma towards people with mental health issues and higher employee mental well-being.

Second, conduct mental health education training programs for employees. The results of our study found many benefits from mental health education programs, such as improvements in mental health knowledge, lowering stigmatising attitudes, increased willingness to disclose mental health issues and increased managerial confidence in managing them.

Third, provide team-based interventions for employee participation and group support. Mentally healthy workplace activities can also be promoted at the team or group level. Often these activities involve providing education and training in new knowledge, skills and abilities. There is evidence that this type of approach can effectively prevent the deterioration of mental health in the workplace.

Learn more

Read the full APSIC report on Mental Health in the Workplace.

Ian Williamson is a Research Fellow of the Melbourne Business School, who delivers our executive education Strategic HR Leadership program and teaches on our Senior MBA program. He has worked with executives in over 20 countries across six continents, providing services in the areas of strategic human resource management, managing organisational change and innovation, employee recruitment and retention, and executive coaching.