Personal issues are workplace issues

22 May 2017

smallerHow could mental health not be a workplace issue?

Just as issues at work can impact on our personal lives (relationships, stress level, success, time etc) we can also come to work bringing with us all the personal issues we are dealing with at home. And while employers don’t own those issues – they do end up owning the impact these issues have on peoples’ work. Ignoring this and continuing to separate work and home life is not only to the detriment of the individual, but to the organisation. Employers now have an unprecedented opportunity to consider a holistic approach to ensuring the wellbeing of their staff.

Promoting positive mental health in the workplace is not best approached with a few dedicated activities here and there – it needs to be much more fundamental. It’s about how we treat each other. The most effective way to improve employee mental health and boost culture, productivity and retention is by embedding the best practices into our everyday ways of working.

Looking at five of the key factors* observed in a mentally healthy workplace, it’s clear that a positive mental health approach needs to be intrinsic in our all-round behaviours:

  1. civility & respect are ‘the norm’
  2. work demands are reasonable & clear
  3. it is safe to speak up about issues
  4. issues are identified & resolved
  5. accommodation supports productivity

If an organisation can create an environment like this by ensuring the policies, practices and culture are aligned, employees will then be able to play by the rules of that environment. Ensuring optimal conditions for all employees, regardless of their level of mental health, will enable them to thrive and problems will be less likely to occur.

Changing the environment for individuals to foster their success

The best places to work are those in which people can be their best selves. ‘Reasonable adjustments’, or accommodations, are changes to the work environment that allow someone with a disability to work safely and productively. Under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, ‘disability’ includes psychological illness whether temporary or permanent.

For most people experiencing a mental health issue, adjustments will only be required at certain times throughout their working life. These adjustments are based on the specific needs of the individual and agreed on by that person with their manager. They can be anything from starting and finishing work later to skip stressful peak hour traffic to having more regular meetings with their manager to review priorities. To watch videos about the best ways to manage adjustments, click here.

These adjustments can be as creative as they need to be. An example of ‘out of the box’ thinking is an organisation which employs Fly-in, Fly-out workers. They identified that both their employees’ home and work lives were impacted by the job demands of having to be between two places all the time. This was creating stress for the employees as they often came home to families who were frustrated that the workers’ home duties had been being neglected due to their absence, such as mowing the lawn. The organisation realised that if they could reduce some of the home pressures caused by work, then the employees’ would be less stressed at home and more focused at work. Services (such as gardening) were made available to assist employees to manage those responsibilities and far better outcomes were achieved when workers had more time to spend with their families when they were home.

Most workplaces have ramps in addition to stairs, bathrooms for people of varying abilities, guidelines on how to sit at desks and dedicated staff whose job it is to ensure people are physically safe – all to help prevent harm or injury. Now, employers are beginning to ensure they are creating environments and cultures least likely to cause any type of harm, including psychologically. Risks of psychological injury – like high workloads and competing work/life priorities – are plenty in the workplace. Reducing these risks directly correlates with the health and success of a team.

Ultimately employees are human beings, many of whom dedicate more than 40 hours each week to their workplace. To think that they can leave their personal life at the door would be to pretend that a huge part of them doesn’t exist while they’re at work. Embracing the whole person allows organisations to create better outcomes for their employees’ life and work environments that set them up to be as successful as they can be.

*Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace