How to build a mentally healthy workplace climate

06 October 2016

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is vital for the modern business.

A mentally healthy workplace is one that encourages its employees to stay well and supports those who are experiencing mental health challenges. Creating such a workplace can require some major cultural shifts as well as small yet effective steps on a day-to-day basis.

It all starts with the leadership team. “Everything the leaders and managers do impacts on the workplace culture,” says Nick Arvanitis,Beyond Blue’s Head of Research and Development (Workforce). “You need to say that, as an organisation, you’re committed to the mental health and wellbeing of your people, and then you need to walk the talk.”

Educate the leadership team

Education is the first step in any major change to your workplace’s climate. The organisation’s senior management team and team leaders need to know why the change is happening and how to implement it well.

There are many resources around, including SuperFriend’s Wellbeing Works. This program looks at the elements of a safe workplace culture in relation to mental wellbeing, and what the organisation is doing on a daily basis to ensure that climate is fostered. This includes a focus on leadership, building knowledge, policies and the occupational health and safety environment.

SuperFriend’s Development Manager, Deborah Kennedy, explains, “Leaders need to recognise that there’s a case for keeping the well well, plus looking after people who might need assistance. It’s about building that culture, and in the same way that we do that with occupational health and safety, we need to have a safe culture in terms of mental wellbeing too.”

Show real commitment

Commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of your employees can be shown through actionable plans. “Incorporate the mental health and wellbeing of your staff in the strategic plan,” Arvanitis advises. “That shows yourecognise they’re a key enabler to the organisation achieving its vision.”

From there, it’s a matter of putting those plans into place. “What is the mental health action plan you’re going to roll out within their organisation over the next couple of years?” asks Arvanitis. “A key part of that will be making sure that individuals have access to various supports and services, such as an EAP or external services like information lines.”

Reduce the stigma

“There is a significant amount of stigma attached to mental health,” Arvanitis explains,“so we encourage all organisations to tackle stigma as an early priority. You need to create an environment where employees feel safe to disclose their mental health challenges or to seek support.”

In order to reduce that stigma, it’s important to show your workers that mental health challenges are normal and understood within the workplace. “The best way to reduce stigma is to have people share their personal stories of depression and anxiety,” Arvanitis explains. “When people have contact with people who have experience with mental health challenges, then we reduce stigma. Speak openly about mental health, and perhaps invite speakers to talk to workers about their experience and their positive recovery.”

Know whose mental health you’re protecting

Employers need to understand who they’re seeking to support. That is, every single one of your employees, not just those who have diagnosed mental health conditions. Arvanitis explains, “If people reach a particular point in their symptoms, then they have a diagnosable mental health condition, but there’s an even greater number of people that are experiencing mild mental health problems.” This could be any of your staff.

Arvanitisadds, “It’s about thinking more broadly about mental health in the workplace, not just about supporting those individuals who have diagnosable mental health conditions.”

Remove or minimise stressors and risks

Some mental health risk factors and stressors can be removed through careful planning and targeted actions. Arvanitis says, “Think about the working environment, and how it can be modified to reduce those risk factors. There might be an opportunity to introduce a bit more flexibility into a worker’s day – even small things like letting them choose when they take their lunch break or having the opportunity to start a little bit later and finish a bit later so they can drop off their kids in the morning.”

There are some risk factors, however, that are an inherent part of an employee’s role. In that case, you need some actions in place that will help offset the impacts of those stressors. Arvanitis suggests:

  • A peer support program that allows workers to debrief their challenges and stress;
  • Providing supportive leadership, which can be a strong protective factor against mental illness;
  • Make EAPs and other resources readily available;
  • Look out for your staff and intervene early if you’re concerned that someone is struggling. Remember that your role is not to diagnose a problem, but to have a constructive, sensitive conversation and suggest they contact the EAP or their GP.