Ensuring the psychological health of employees is gaining momentum in Australia with many introducing mental health programs. In Australia, the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry Into Mental Health is underway with their draft report available and the final report due in 2020.
While this review is underway, a study was conducted in 2019 by the AI Group and a report has been prepared by Griffith University. Their research draws on six case studies to identify the triggers for taking action on employee mental health issues, the types of initiatives they introduce and the barriers they encounter. The six businesses interviewed for the study ranged in size from between 40-5,000 employees, across manufacturing, transport and logistics, energy providers and professional services. Much of the data came from interviews with their HR Managers.
The study is interesting because it provides an insight into how a business might respond to pressure to move to a mentally healthy workplace. For this article, we offer the findings of this research to help you to introduce mental health programs in your business.
See our article that discusses the major findings of the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry, Business Must Address the Growing Mental Health Crisis.
Common Triggers for Introducing Mental Health Programs
The most common trigger for introducing mental health programs is when there is a clear business case. However, many businesses are yet to advance to developing business cases around workplace mental health.
Businesses report a clear preference to improve their capability to understand and assist with mental health issues, particularly by raising awareness and reducing stigma. Larger organisations are looking at taking a strategic approach to mental health rather than implementing discrete initiatives, and as such work to a plan. They are also keen to know how to better measure the outcomes on mental health programs that they introduce.
Senior leader support is critical to introducing mental health programs. When organisations are looking to implement mental health activities, then it is the senior leader(s) that they need to convince. HR Managers are most likely to drive mental health and it is generally from a personal interest in addressing mental health issues. Introducing mental health programs is both supported and hindered by the level of expertise of HR professionals in managing employee mental health.
Typical Barriers to Introducing Mental Health Programs
There are several common barriers to introducing mental health programs for the workplace including:
- Stigma – where mental health issues remain a taboo subject and employees experiencing problems are subject to stigma, treated differently and not offered the same opportunities of other employees.
- Managerial resistance – where managers are reluctant to deal with employees who have declining mental health. There is a need to build managerial support for mental health activities.
- Cost – some businesses report that accessing mental health assistance outside of an EAP is difficult and expensive.
- A lack of employee engagement – where organisations offer mental health activities; however, employee take-up is limited. There is evidence of employee pushback on whether it was the organisation’s responsibility to address employee mental health and well-being.
- Limited internal organisational knowledge and expertise – where businesses are unaware of the available activities and resources beyond an EAP, to address employee mental health issues. As one manager says:
If any training became available, or any seminars on exactly the rights and obligations, we’re definitely interested in attending something like that.
See our article, Stigma and Barriers to Mental Health Care.
Most Popular Mental Health Initiatives that Business Use
The most common mental health intervention by businesses is the use of an EAP. However, in smaller firms, the costs to engage an EAP is prohibitive. EAP’s offer support and counselling services and many provide access to training and resources.
See our article, Do Employee Assistance Programs Work?
Organisations are introducing mental health awareness days such as R U OK? days to encourage awareness and break down stigma.
Businesses are turning to mental health first-aid training to train managers on how to help employees with mental illness who approach them for advice. However, the training is often over two days, is generally restricted to managers and may have prohibitive costs.
See our article, Does Mental Health First Aid Training Help?
Organisation-wide meetings that include discussion of mental health issues are also popular and help to reduce stigma and increase knowledge.
Other initiatives include:
- Adopting an organisation-wide focus on physical and mental health (i.e., a workplace health program)
- Providing information on mental health to staff
- Appointing a staff member to coordinate well-being (and mental health)
- Sponsoring community efforts to address mental health
- Developing a supportive culture to support employee mental health
- Introducing social activities focussed on well-being and mental health.
What are the Gaps?
There are several areas where business seems to be at odds with the academic literature and recommendations to improve workplace mental health.
- Developing a formalised strategy enables you to write down your goals. In this study, there was a distinct lack of formal mental health strategies. Discussing a strategy on workplace mental health raises the perceived importance and the priority, requires broad-based communication which increases knowledge and understanding, and it symbolises the value placed upon employee well-being, helping to develop a more supportive organisational culture.
- Job design is a critical factor for employee mental health. Providing flexibility, autonomy and control and job rotation supports well-being. In this study, none of the organisations mentioned job design as an activity that they use to manage employee mental health concerns.
- Treating psychological injury the same as physical injury. The significant implications that Industrial Manslaughter Laws have with no time limit on claims and the suggestion that psychological injury that leads to a fatality could lead to prosecution, should have businesses treating all injury under the one risk management framework. See our article, How to Adhere to Industrial Manslaughter Laws.
- There is limited training on mental health symptoms and strategies for the general employee. There is a general assumption that everyone knows the signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, but this is not the case.
- There is also limited information on critical workplace issues such as workplace bullying and sexual harassment in safety inductions and employee onboarding training. The mental health conversation should start on day one for all new employees.
- Organisations need to measure and track employee mental health outcomes over time before, during and after introducing mental health programs. The data will help them to evaluate if their efforts to address mental health are working. They can use the evidence to support a case for the value of actively managing mental health issues in the workplace and to understand which initiatives are most successful.
As one Manager says:
I’d love it if we got to the stage where mental health was treated like a broken leg. So no stigma, no different policy or procedure. It’s just that it’s a condition or a disease or whatever you want to call it, but it has no stigma around it and we just treat and support it as we would do any other part of the body…
How Can e-Mental Health Help?
In this study, there was a call for more resources and information on mental health, including training and seminars, for the future. There was a suggestion that resources other than an EAP were expensive and difficult to access.
For businesses investing in workplace mental health, they could try e-mental health interventions. E-mental health programs, including apps and online training and resources, remove barriers typically experienced in traditional and face-to-face interactions including that they:
- are low cost
- help to reduce stigma
- provide increased privacy
- can be accessed anywhere
- offer self-paced training
- have a positive impact on symptoms of major depression, panic disorder, social phobia and general anxiety.
Safe Work Australia suggests:
There is an opportunity for Australian mental health treatment and support to genuinely embed e-mental health as a recognised service delivery mode, optimising cost-effectiveness, reach and access.
Tap into Safety‘s employee mental health training is an example of an e-mental health technology that you use online and smart devices. The modules use microlearning to tackle relevant workplace topics that impact mental health using fun animation, gamification and interaction. For businesses investing in workplace mental health, the training helps by teaching useful coping strategies, guiding on where to seek help and providing information on rights and responsibilities. The training should be offered to all employees to shore up the gap that mental health first aid training for managers creates.
Clients using the solution have seen increases in help-seeking by 100%, as shown in the product evaluation conducted in 2017. By encouraging help-seeking early, we reduce the escalation of serious stress claims. This assists employees to tell us when they are not well or not feeling as good as they should.
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In this article, we draw on case research that investigates the reasons why some Australian workplaces have taken initiatives on mental health, the nature of those initiatives, the barriers they encounter along the way and the results they see. The study finds that introducing a mental health program is often driven by an HR Manager with previous experience in dealing with mental health issues.
The most common initiatives are using an EAP, providing mental health first aid training for managers, encouraging organisation-wide discussions and investing in awareness days. There are several barriers to incorporating mental health initiatives and they often include senior management who are unsupportive, a lack of engagement by employees and a lack of internal knowledge and capability.
There are significant gaps including a lack of formalised strategy around workplace mental health programs, job design, treating psychological injury the same as physical injury, training, and measuring mental health outcomes over time. Organisations still have a lot of work to do to successfully manage workplace mental health in their journey towards a mentally healthy workforce.