As workplace bullying and harassment continue to grab headlines in the wake of allegations against Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein, a new report shows that just 27 per cent of Australian workers believe their workplaces have effective policies and practices in place to prevent the problem.

The 2017 Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey, by SuperFriend, covered 5000 business owners, managers and employees across small, medium and large businesses, to assess the current state of workplace mental health and wellbeing in Australia. SuperFriend is a non-profit organisation, funded by some of the country’s largest super funds and group insurers, with the mission of promoting mentally healthy workplaces.

Eliminating bullying and harassment is just one factor in making a healthy workplace. And the latest report’s findings suggest Australia has a way to go before its workers are thriving.

“One in five Australians every year will experience mental illness and, of those, 1 in 6 are working Australians,” SuperFriend chief executive Margo Lydon said. “Therefore, pretty much every workplace in Australia will have people today experiencing mental illness.”

Organisations should pay attention to these statistics if they want workers who are committed to company goals and will take the extra step to meet them. The report cites a growing body of evidence that happy and healthy workers build better relationships with peers and are more creative, innovative and productive.

On the other hand, organisations that don’t take steps to ensure positive working conditions will have trouble retaining talent. Two in five respondents said they had left a job because of the poor environment, and half said they would do so in the future.

The report canvassed workers on four key indicators: leadership; connectedness; policy and practices; and capabilities and culture. Half of workers surveyed said they weren’t aware of any workplace mental health and wellbeing policies at their workplace. Where policies are in place, only 1 in 6 respondents believe they are being implemented effectively. Just 12 per cent of Australian workplaces surveyed scored highly across every indicator.

“The employers that are doing it really well have great retention of staff, great engagement and connectedness, which is really good as a protective factor against mental illness and suicide,” Lydon said.

The report showed that business owners tended to view the quality of their policies and leadership more positively than their employees do, small businesses typically performed better than their larger counterparts, and there is more emphasis on physical health and safety than psychological wellbeing.

This is the third year SuperFriend has issued the report and over that time the trendline hasn’t shown improvement.

“From a research perspective, that’s not unusual,” SuperFriend insights and impact manager Dr Nerida Joss said. “These things take time to shift. Times are changing and it’s being put onto the agenda.”

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an expensive exercise to improve workplace culture. “It’s about leaders putting it front of mind and running activities to bring their workers together and make them feel more valued in the workplace,” Joss said.

SuperFriend has resources on its website for companies that want to do better. A good place to start is for employers to understand what they are already doing well and identify where the gaps are, then engage their employees in the process and design a plan together.

Lydon said the recent media attention on bullying and harassment would probably encourage more people to come forward, putting pressure on employers to tackle these issues.

“It does give other people in other workplaces almost permission to say this is happening in our workplace and we’re going to address it,” she said.

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