At the Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace seminar, employers found their peers were taking the issue more seriously, and extending the discussion beyond stopping suicide.

The health and dental benefits company had a problem. Unrest and dissatisfaction were rife among its call-centre staff, and performance was suffering. The organisation turned to one of Canada’s leading authorities on mental health and wellbeing at work to try to get to the bottom of it.

Mary Ann Baynton, executive director of Mindful Employer Canada and program director for the Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, says she started to interview the call-centre staff and quickly realised they fell into one of two camps: they either loved – really loved – where they worked, or they hated it.

Baynton went back to the interviews and noticed that staff who loved their jobs had almost all worked in call centres before. They knew what to expect in their current role, and thought the working environment was better than they’d experienced elsewhere. Those who hated it, again almost to a person, had never worked in a call centre before, had no helpful points of reference and resented restrictive work practices and rules that went with the job.

“We gave this information back to the employer and they were then able to manage expectations differently, to orient people differently, and even to hire people differently, so they had that expectation coming in,” Baynton says.

The call centre’s story illustrates a major issue all employers face in creating and maintaining psychologically healthy employees. Baynton says a healthy workplace is, simply, one where employees go to work, work hard, feel that what they do matters, and leave at the end of the day with some energy left over.

A heavy workload isn’t necessarily a precursor to mental health issues, Baynton says.

“Think about a time when you were really excited to work on a project, to do something, to get involved with something at work,” she says. “You were probably working at your highest speed, you were probably producing as much as you possibly could, and I bet you didn’t mind the workload.

“But think of a time when there was just conflict and pressure and you felt that no one was listening to you, you felt you weren’t validated. Well, then any work is too much work. So workload is only an issue if we’re made to feel that our work isn’t valued.”

Psychologically healthy employees are not made to feel powerless, nor subjected to acts of hostility or cruelty by workmates and managers. Enlightened employers and employees alike recognise the symptoms of, and act quickly to prevent, burnout; and employees are supported in developing resilience. Happy and mentally healthy employees are also productive employees.

Workplace mental health is a serious matter, and employers are taking it more seriously. In extreme cases, mental health issues – in and out of the workplace – can lead to suicide. The chief executive of Conexus Financial, Colin Tate, told the 2017 Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace seminar in Sydney on March 8, sponsored by AIA Australia, that there were more than 3000 such cases in 2015 alone, more than 1.5 times the national road toll.

But the discussion about mental health goes beyond suicide.

“Mental health impacts on all of us,” Tate says. “The cost to insurers and to the nation is now many, many billions of dollars a year. The cost to families in heartache [can’t] be accounted for.”

Margot Lydon, chief executive of the superannuation fund-backed mental health foundation SuperFriend, says that for every suicide, another 135 lives are “directly and substantially affected”.

Lydon says suicide is “at the pointy end of the spectrum” but we need to consider what we can be doing as individuals “to make a significant difference in our workplaces, but also to our own mental health and wellbeing”.

Damian Mu, chief executive of AIA Australia, says addressing mental health has been helped by a shift in public perception.

“The dialogue has changed from one of, ‘How do we get the issue on the table?’ ” Mu said. “We talk about the rising incidence of mental health-related claims in group life. I don’t know if they’re rising or whether they just weren’t lodged before, but we know that it is prevalent and we know we can make a difference by supporting and assisting people – and that starts with your own organisation.”

Baynton says she asks three questions of any employee who is struggling.

The first question is what the employee needs “to be able to come to work, do a good job and leave at the end of the day with some energy left over”.

Then she asks what the employee is going to do to “support your own wellbeing in the workplace”. Finally, she asks what will happen if this new approach doesn’t work.

She says the aim is to get “commitment from them to a solution that allows them to work, rather than compliance with a solution that I give to them”.

Paul Schroder, group executive of membership with AustralianSuper, says the typical components of post-traumatic  stress disorder often play out in workplaces – including dealing with unexpected events, incidences of intentional cruelty, and consequent feelings of powerlessness.

He says all managers and leaders within organisations should actively consider “what you can do as a leader to make the people around you feel ‘empowered’ about being in this workplace”.

He said access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) is often extremely helpful, and leaders play an important role in destigmatising such services. Schroder himself was honest and open about his own use of AustralianSuper’s EAP.

Asked what staff should be told of his whereabouts when he was getting assistance, Schroder says he replied: “Tell them I’m in an EAP meeting.” His frankness helped to break down barriers for staff who’d previously been reluctant to seek help.

Teifi Whatley, executive general manager of customer and technology at Sunsuper, says leaders inside organisations need to know “people as people”, and understand that stresses occur for employees both within and outside of work.

Recognising the issues employees encounter, and supporting them the right way in dealing with those issues, helps create more resilient individuals and organisations, Whatley says.

“It doesn’t mean there are not times when people are stressed, and in reality we’re in one of those right now,” she explains.

“We have a lot of things on the go, but we are very, very aware of it and, as leaders, it is our responsibility to help people work through those. But also, to [say] to them we know that, we understand that – and this is what we’re doing about it.”

AIA’s Mu says the insurer works with a range of organisations and employers and they’re all at different stages of recognising the benefits of psychologically healthy workplaces, and how to create them.

“From a [superannuation] fund perspective, those funds that have recognised the importance of it in their own workplace generally have a very good understanding of how that manifests in other workplaces and how what they do can connect to that,” he says.

SuperFriend’s Lydon says that as the chief executive of a national mental-health foundation, “when we recruit somebody into the organisation, they walk in expecting that we are gold standard, that we do this beautifully. We don’t, not always, as my team will attest,” she says. “We try to do it as best we possibly can, but our journey is no different from any other workplace journey. We have stumbled, we have fallen down, we’ve picked ourselves up and brushed the dirt off our knees, and kept going. And we’ve learned from that.”

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