The last taboo in Australian society isn’t money or politics—it’s mental health. Ground zero for mental health is the workplace, and this is a major blind spot for employers.
A study from BeyondBlue—a not-for-profit dedicated to helping all Australians achieve their best possible mental health—found one in five Australian employees took time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the year of 2014. 1 in 3 Australians aren’t comfortable discussing mental health issues, despite how commonplace they are, according to research from R U OK? Day.
It’s clearly a conversation we need to be having. So why aren’t we?
We spend at least eight hours every day at work, and many people take work home with them, either consciously or unconsciously. R U OK? Day is a timely reminder of the need to ensure companies are creating and delivering healthy workplaces for their employees, and ensure they receive the support they need.
It is estimated untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year in absenteeism, lack of productivity and compensation claims. At an individual level the cost far outstrips monetary impacts.
Mental well-being is not solely the domain of businesses. Businesses are complicit in creating a culture which makes it harder to maintain mental health.
The challenge is mental health is more difficult to quantify than other inclusion measures which are rolled out in the workplace. It is less visible than gender and ethnicity and, because of the stigma that surrounds it, is often kept hidden by individuals. It is an illness that draws power by existing in the shadows.
On a practical level for businesses, it makes it easy to ignore—which is why it’s even more important not to.
By refusing to address the looming need for mental well-being strategies, businesses can in fact cultivate the type of workplaces that breed it.
They don’t recognise the signs and actively work to reduce them. Instead, they might potentially foster spaces which are competitive, stressful and as a result, highly toxic. It drives people to breaking point.
And let’s be honest, in some instances technology has enabled this culture. With smartphones and laptops there’s always the chance to connect to the network, or send a couple of emails after hours. Not switching off from work takes a psychological toll on wellbeing, no matter what is happening in the rest of your employees’ lives.
There is a real, tangible reason France barred the sending of work emails after office hours; healthy citizens equal productive citizens.
Unhealthy workplace cultures can also implicitly reward employee behaviour that matches it. This is the “toxic manager” who belittles and demotivates more junior staff under their remit. A study from the U.S. found the cost of having one of these workers in a business is more than $16,980 ($US 12,000) a year, through lowering business performance and the turnover of the other staff they interact with. Not everyone has suffered from a toxic manager, but for those of us who have, the cost is not financial; it is deeply personal and destabilising.
There is a growing trend to better physical health at work, with a proliferation of quit smoking programs, charity runs and morning exercise classes. Mental well-being deserves the same level of attention.
What can be done to address this? The first thing is to put actions behind our words. Those actions include R U OK? Day—but must go beyond this. We need to follow through on the commitment this fantastic initiative stands for—to create a discussion about mental well-being—every day, not just once a year.
This means empowering our HR departments to drive a change in workplace culture. This includes the actions and expectations on how managers lead their teams, the types of interactions between senior and more junior members of staff and a clear commitment to allowing staff to maintain their personal time away from work.
If technology has been a hindrance previously, it is also the solution. Having a digital solution can put time back in the day for your HR team members, allowing them to focus on creating culture and not just maintaining processes.
With these foundations in place, with this clear respect for the free time of staff—innovative measures can be more successful in businesses. I’ve heard of companies (shout out to SAP) that help their staff practice mindfulness techniques in the workplace, and others that subscribe all employees to the meditation tool Headspace. These are fantastic new approaches to putting well-being on the agenda. But they will work only in an environment with a culture to match.
There is a need for businesses to step up—the risks of not doing so are clear. They extend to your business, your profitability and your ability to build an innovative culture ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges. But the greater need is to take care of the people who dedicate their time to furthering your business every day. This requires fulfillment of the promise of R U OK? Day, every day.
For more on workplace wellness, see Workplace Wellness Programs Track Your Health, But How Far Should They Go?