Time to Focus on Mental Health at Work

In July last year, an American CEO received international recognition for his response to an employee’s decision to take a mental health sick day.

Ben Congleton of Olark Live Chat was dubbed a “dream boss” after he described Madalyn Parker as “an example to us all” for informing her colleagues that she would be taking time off work to focus on her psychological wellbeing.

“I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

The internet was quick to celebrate Congleton’s approach, but in doing so it highlighted just how uncommon it is for business leads to act so favourably towards mental health maintenance.

In line with international trends, Australians are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of mental wellness. But while the conversation at home is changing, psychological illness remains somewhat of a taboo topic in the workplace.

A recent survey of over 1,000 Australian workers found that 91% of people believe it is important to have a mentally healthy work environment. Sadly, only half of those interviewed actually considered their place of work to be a mentally safe space.

This lack of alignment between what employees want and what they are receiving is just as apparent when it comes to the availability of relevant resources. While 81% of organisational leaders claim to have implemented some form of mental health strategy, more than one third of employees do not know how to go about accessing help at work.

The failure of businesses to tackle this issue in any real way is having a major impact on absenteeism, presenteeism and indeed the economy itself. Untreated mental illness costs Australian organisations an estimated $10.9 billion per annum, with one in five workers requiring time off in the last year to ease the effects of psychological strain.

Simply having an action plan is not enough. Employers now need to seriously encourage staff to seek help whenever it is needed. Services like counselling and stress management courses should be made available, but in order to truly curb the effects of mental illness existing organisational cultures also need to be addressed.

Managers must be taught to respond effectively to mental health queries and absences so that those suffering from such issues know they can speak up without putting their careers at risk. Zero tolerance policies should be implemented to ensure instances of workplace bullying and discrimination are obliterated. And company specific mental health campaigns should be launched to open the lines of communication between employees at every level.

With PwC predicting a significant return on investment for companies who adopt targeted mental health wellness programmes, it makes sense for businesses to renew their commitment to this vital facet of personal and organisational well being. In doing so they will create stronger, more creative workforce's which will go on to advance individual organisations and society alike.