Create A Supportive Workplace Culture

Around one in five Australians will experience a mental-health problem this year, but how many of us will feel supported in the workplace?

Research collected by suicide prevention charity RUOK? shows that a massive 86% of us hold back when expressing our mental health in the workplace, and over half of us hide some aspect of ourselves at work. Fear of unfair treatment, rejection and becoming the subject of gossip are often cited as reasons for not disclosing mental illness in the workplace. Not without reason either. UK-based campaign Time To Change reported a whopping nine out of ten people have felt discriminated against after disclosing ill mental health in the workplace. And the recent Stephenson/Farmer report titled ‘Thriving at Work,’ revealed that 300,000 people lose their jobs due to mental-health issues each year.

As a society, we endure a workplace culture that refuses to address the issues of mental health: managers struggle to discuss it with employees, colleagues are unsure what they can do to help and employees are terrified of being ostracised or sacked. Yet we spend a good majority of our time at work and ultimately it is our jobs that suffer when we endure a stretch of mental illness.

The wall of silence that surrounds mental ill health at work is as unhelpful to employers as it is to employees.

In the same way a cold or flu can hit us, causing us to take days off work, anyone can be affected by a mental-health issue. In fact, one in five of us has taken time off work in the past year due to mental health issues. Ensuring that our approach to mental health is on an equal footing with that of physical health can begin to boost the process of at-work support and much-needed openness. Treating mental health in the same vein as physical health – guaranteed time off, support for longer term conditions and an understanding that you’re better taking time off to get well rather than struggling on – will boost recovery times and ultimately benefit both company and individual. Imagine if we could discuss our mental health issues as openly and confidently as we discuss coming down with a bout of flu?

Workplace support and openness is crucial to the ongoing dismantling of the stigma surrounding mental health. Feeling supported can be the difference between life and death in many extreme cases. At the very least, knowing you’re not alone can assist in the process of recovering from mental ill-health.

There are several steps you can take to ensuring your colleagues feel more supported:

  1. NOTICE how your colleagues are looking, what they are saying and what they are doing. Does anything seem out of the ordinary? Are you aware of any significant events happening in their lives? Observations such as these can be key to discovering if a colleague is suffering in silence.

  2. INITIATE a conversation with a colleague you suspect might be enduring mental illness. Ask how they are feeling, reserving any sort of judgment or diagnosis. Don’t make it your job to counsel, just endeavour to listen and offer emotional support.

  3. SUGGEST they seek professional support. Refer them to resources at work and offer to help them make an appointment and find other information.

  4. CHECK-IN regularly. Ask how their appointment went and send time talking about their experiences. Show your willingness to speak regularly and openly about how they are feeling.

  5. ENCOURAGE them to get involved in social activities. Invite them to lunch or take time to share in light-hearted activities as a form of helpful distraction. A physical activity, such as a lunchtime exercise class, can be done together and has the added benefits of boosting endorphin's.

  6. OFFER (if practical) to assist them with work tasks whilst they find their feet.