Mental health is a real and significant issue; impacting individuals, the community and organisations.
In a 2020 report, The Australian Productivity Commission estimated that mental health related issues cost the Australian economy $220 billion annually.
And it’s why Dr Steve Brown FAIM believes mental health in the workplace should be taken seriously.
“Organisations of all sizes have a role to play in providing a mentally healthy workplace for all employees,” Dr Brown said.
“Mental health should be seen as no different to other health and safety issues in the workplace."
“If there’s a trip hazard in the workplace, you don’t walk past it without doing something about it. Similarly, if you see a source of stress, it should be viewed the same way as any other hazard, not ignored or viewed as too hard or none of my business.”
Dr Brown’s interest in health and safety in the workplace piqued at a young age.
At 15, the registered psychologist left school and worked as a plant operator for a number of years.
“I was always really fascinated in the psychology of how the organisation impacted on the wellbeing of its staff through things like organisational change and shift work,” he explained.
“I became more and more interested in the wellbeing of employees and issues such as drug use in the workplace, resulting in a published article examining employee attitudes to drug and alcohol testing, which was part of my honours research.
“My work grew out of interest through a lived experience of seeing firsthand things that had a positive, as well as detrimental, impact on employee well-being”
Working with local, national and international partners to deliver high-quality professional development opportunities to individuals, forms part of Dr Brown’s current role as the Manager of Executive Education at AIM WA+UWA Business School.
The role of organisations
Dr Brown believes perceptions around mental health in the workplace have changed over the years.
“Understanding mental health has improved over time – we have certainly got better at recognising and addressing it,” he said.
“We have seen a shift in attitudes and issues are discussed more openly, but with organisations losing billions of dollars to mental health problems we’ve still got a long way to go.
“There was once a time when people had this mindset of getting on with things and there wasn’t really an understanding or focus on the importance of talking through mental health issues, stressors or things that were having a psychological impact.”
In an effort to minimise this economic impact, Dr Brown suggested alleviating some well-known organisational stresses where possible.
“It’s important for organisations to be encouraged to understand the factors that impact the mental health of individuals in the workplace,” he said.
“Autonomy in the workplace is a great example. If we give people independence to organise their day, workspace and how they go about their work, it gives them a much better sense of control over what they’re doing.
“On the other hand, from a leadership and management perspective, leaders who are micro-managers tend to cause a lot of stress and demotivation amongst employees.”
Clarity around what is expected and boundaries where responsibilities start and finish is also a helpful tool.
“Having very clear descriptions of what is expected of employees, markers of good performance and not-so-good performance and being able to understand the consequences for both of those things up front is really important,” Dr Brown explained.
“Another thing most people have struggled with over the last 30 odd years is workloads.
“I think back to organisations I’ve worked in where not as much was expected of people as it is today in terms of the amount of work people have to do, and that’s a massive issue.”
Approaching workplace mental health
When it comes to approaching an employee who has indicated or communicated they are struggling with their mental health, Dr Brown said showing empathy was key, but trying to solve other people’s personal problems should be avoided.
“Really listening carefully to them and being there for them is so important,” he said.
“The rule I have around this is that unsolicited advice is never a good idea.
“Sometimes people just need to talk about it. Ask if the person needs help but don’t overstep the boundary, and try to focus on understanding the perspective of the person through being present and confirming your understanding.
“The other thing to think about is, if someone has talked to you about stress or mental health concerns they are having, be careful with how much of that burden you take on yourself.
“It’s not necessarily our role to take all the stress of that on board ourselves.”
According to Dr Brown, a key indicator that someone could be struggling with their mental health is a change in behaviour.
“When you see changes and uncharacteristic behaviours, that can be a sign that something is wrong,” he said.
“You might work with a cheerful person and one day you notice they have started withdrawing or have become irritable. That’s when you might want to think about talking to them.
“A good way to approach that person is to be specific and give an example.
“Saying something like ‘I can see that you had an outburst in that meeting, that’s not like you. I’m concerned for you, what’s going on for you?’ shows you’re paying attention and you’ve got some concerns. Of course, confidentiality and a non-judgemental approach is very important.”
Dr Brown said creating a mentally healthy workplace benefited both employees and employers, but taking care of your own mental health was also essential.
“A healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, eating well, honouring relationships that are important to you and trying to stay grounded are just some of the ways in which we can ensure we stay psychologically healthy,” he said.