Building healthy minds at work
How we can all help create spaces that support mental health.
Ethics & social conscience
5 minute read
Work gives us structure, purpose, identity, community, and a sense of achievement. We spend one third of our lives there, so it’s no surprise that it also has a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing1. Unfortunately, in the Australian advertising industry, 52% of workers suffer from mild-to-severe levels of anxiety, and 56% suffer from mild-to-severe levels of depression2.
The clincher? People continue to feel uncomfortable reporting mental health challenges in the workplace – preferring to keep the personal and professional at a safe distance3. Add to this an increase in hybrid work, and employers are up against a lack of visibility that makes it hard to 1. gauge the full scope of the issue, and 2. make changes that will meaningfully improve people’s lives, and by extension, their professional contribution – be it social, cultural or fiscal.
Professor Samuel Harvey, Chief Scientist at Black Dog Institute says that ‘Creating a mentally healthy workplace should no longer be considered a peripheral concern for leaders. It is something that needs to be at the core of successful, thriving organisations’4. There are a number of reasons employers should take more responsibility for the wellbeing of their employees. Here are a few:
1. It improves workplace culture
Happy employees equal a happy office. When employees feel seen they’re more likely to show up to office events and contribute to workplace culture5. In a recent study, 56% of respondents listed company culture as more important than salary in a job6. If you want to attract and retain employees, healthy culture is paramount.
2. It increases engagement
Mental ill health affects business by increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and reduced concentration4. When employees are mentally well, they can produce their best work.
3. Economically, it makes sense
A lack of engagement combined with compensation claims resulting from poor mental health costs Australian businesses $10.9 million dollars a year, making the price of preventing poor mental health far less than the cost of mending it4.
So how exactly do we create the type of work environment that allows people to feel supported and safe to express themselves?
Due to the personal nature of the experience, mental health can be tricky to navigate at an organisational level. While smaller companies may feel more comfortable addressing employees one-on-one and vice versa, for larger companies, efforts can sometimes come off as tokenistic or under considered – no matter how well meaning.
While a free gym membership or app subscription can be a nice sweetener, investing the time and money into creating larger shifts in your culture is more likely to pay off long term. This could include publicly setting boundaries around when employees are expected to respond to work emails1. Normalising mental health as a topic in internal meetings by offering tips on how to identify that you may need help. Or even enabling employees to seek that help during work hours, without needing to take sick leave1.
At the simplest level, acknowledging that over half of your employees are likely to be experiencing mental health issues as you read this is a great place to start in building awareness as a driver for action.
“People continue to feel uncomfortable reporting mental health challenges in the workplace – preferring to keep the personal and professional at a safe distance.”
I see my co-workers more than I see anyone else in my life. I know their weird quirks, their favourite snacks and notice when they’re having an off day.
But even when you do have strong personal relationships with the people you work with, workplaces can be one of the hardest paces to navigate when, where and how exactly to have these tough conversations.
This is where R U OK? Day’s steps on how to sensitively approach conversations around mental health offer a great starting point:
Get ready to ask
Before you start a conversation, there are a few things to consider. Are you ready to sincerely listen and provide support and are you able to do so without compromising on your own mental wellbeing?
It’s also important to choose an appropriate time and place to chat. It should be somewhere private where you both feel emotionally safe, are free from interruptions, and are able to be present in the conversation.
Having a conversation
A conversation can start as simply as ‘how are you going…’ or ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit flat lately…’. It’s not about being a therapist, but rather providing a space for your coworker to share and be supported when and if they decide to do so. After you’ve listened, it can be helpful to prompt the person to consider what action could be taken to help – no matter big or small.
As someone who has struggled with mental health, I’ve been sceptical when people have suggested small things I can do to help myself.
However, starting full-time work this year has forced me to try embedding these small things into my daily routine, and I can genuinely say that they’ve made a huge difference overall:
1. Getting up earlier to make sure I do something for myself in the morning like exercise, walk the dog or even just take my time making myself a nice breakfast.
2. Taking a lunch break. Getting away from my desk and taking time to reset, significantly improves my workday. It gives me perspective on work stress, and allows me to return to work with a clear head.
3. Most importantly, staying aware of my emotions and being honest with myself about how I’m feeling. Humans are supposed to feel every emotion – even the difficult ones. Respecting the truth about how we feel is vital to being able to move through challenging emotional periods.
Whether you’re an employer or an employee, it’s highly likely that you or someone you work with will experience mental health challenges that impact their person and output. By giving these the attention they deserve in the above ways, we can all do our bit to create an environment where we thrive both individually and collectively.