Managing mental health in the workplace

A presentation at the recent Industrial and Organisational Psychology (IOP) conference in Brisbane highlighted some interesting perspectives on mental health issues in the workplace. Here we summarise the research presented by the government’s Beyond Blue initiative, which targets depression, and the University of Tasmania. The article also delves into some of the issues relating to managing mental health in the workplace and its implications for HR professionals.

Depression is a major health issue in Australia, and is currently the leading cause of non-fatal disability (Beyond Blue, 2011). It is estimated that approximately 20-55% of us will experience an episode of major depression at some point in our lifetime. Given the magnitude of this issue, and the potential for it to increase in prevalence in coming years, it seems particularly important that managers are well-equipped to address the challenge of managing mental health in the workplace – although evidence to date suggest that this is not currently the case…

Costs of a depressed employee

Depression can be costly for an organisation. According to Cocker et al. (2011), depression directly causes  a significant proportion of absenteeism in the workplace for both blue collar and white collar workers.

Having said this, evidence suggests that many people with depression often continue working, meaning that their everyday performance and effectiveness is also compromised.  The following are the main costs associated with mental health in the workplace

  • Poor performance
  • Reduced Productivity
  • Increase in accidents, often due to poor concentration
  • High turnover
  • Early retirement
  • Costs of anti-depressants and health service use

Managing depression in the workplace

Although stress is reasonably well recognised and often well managed, depression and anxiety are managed much less effectively in organisations. Results from a study of Australian managers and how they handle mental health in the workplace indicated that the majority:

  • had a lack of confidence
  • felt uncomfortable discussing mental health
  • had a general lack of understanding

Poor management of mental health issues has implications for not only the employee (in terms of inadequate support, issues of stigma, discrimination regarding promotion and employment) but also for the manager themselves. For example, according to Martin (2010), managers are often left feeling poorly supported, raising the question of  ‘who looks after the manager?’

Why are managers so ill equipped to deal with these issues?

It is standard practice for organisations to have Occupational Healthy and Safety (OH & S) policies and procedures in place in their workplace for physical medical conditions, yet this is far less common when it comes to specific mental health policies and practices. Martin (2010) estimated that only about 30% of organisations have a mental health policy in place According to the research presented at the conference, it is critical that organisations embed sound mental health practices in the same manner as OH & S raise our awareness of physical conditions and hazards.

It also appears that there is a clear training gap for managers. In one recent study, managers who were equipped with the right tools to manage mental health issues reported a number of positive implications of managing depression well. For example, satisfaction through observing recovery, improved knowledge and understanding about mental health, new management skills and greater insight.

What are the implications of this research?

Although there is some momentum across workplaces to address mental health issues, this research indicates that there is a strong demand for resources and evidence-based guidelines to help managers coped with this need.

A good starting point for managers looking for assistance is to consider the following:

  • What is my role in terms of managing mental health in my organisation? E.g. To raise awareness, support your employees, promote a healthy and supportive culture?
  • Performance management of mentally ill employees – What is fair? How should you factor it in? Is it possible?
  • Targeted strategies such as plans to return to work and workplace modifications
  • Participating in a mental health training course

If you are currently experiencing depression, or are concerned about the mental health of one of your employees, crisis support services can be accessed by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14. Lifeline also provide a range of free resources at their website www.lifeline.org.au.

Alternatively, Beyond Blue provide a specialised referral service and a range of resources that can be accessed by calling 1300 22 4636, visiting www.beyondblue.org.au or www.workcover.com/beyondblue.

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