Mental health check in: Are we okay?

August 2022

Even before the advent of COVID-19, depressive and anxiety disorders were among the principal health problems experienced worldwide, according to leading medical journal, The Lancet. But, with the arrival of the pandemic, the factors that drive poor mental health have been intensified.

The state of mental health in the workplace

Mental health is, of course, often impacted by personal rather than workplace issues. But the Lancet study found that concern about daily infection rates and reduced mobility (e.g. from lockdowns and working from home) were leading causes of poor mental health. However, even though lockdowns appear to be over, COVID infection rates are still significant, infected individuals are still required to isolate, and remote working has become normal. As a result, the pandemic-induced pressures remain, and this is not the time for business owners and leaders to take their eye off the ball when it comes to the mental wellbeing of their employees.

What does good workplace mental health look like?

Good mental health at work manifests as a state of wellbeing which allows the individual concerned to cope with life’s stresses and still work productively, and be engaged in both the organisation and the general community. A person’s mental health can be significantly affected by what happens at work, and in particular by the culture, leaders and team members they interact with.

In fact, according to a report by the Diversity Council Australia (DCA), business leaders are almost twice as likely as entry-level employees (or those in non-leadership roles) to report good mental health in the preceding 12 months. This could be related to the fact that 63% of those same senior executives reported that they had discussed their mental health at work in the previous 12 months, while only 31% of workers in entry-level positions had done so.

A well as noting the disparity between mental health outcomes at the top and bottom levels of organisations, the DCA report also noted that workers in inclusive teams or inclusive workplace cultures were seven times more likely to report that their workplace had a positive impact on their mental health and was safe and supportive for those whose mental health was poor.

Good mental health at work seems to depend to a great extent on seniority, inclusivity, and an opportunity to discuss mental health without stigma.

The beneficial effects of social connections

Scientific studies have shown that cordial interaction with family, friends, colleagues and the wider community will have a correspondingly positive impact on mental health. This was confirmed by a report of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. Effective social connections at work therefore take their place alongside seniority, inclusivity and mental health discussions as drivers of good workplace mental health.

Solutions should start at the top

It’s already been demonstrated that leaders have better mental health experiences at work, and leaders need to ensure that employees at all levels can enjoy the same benefits. These are the steps that senior executives and business owners can take in order to achieve this:

  • Acknowledge the disparity. There shouldn’t be such a wide gap between how employees at different levels experience mental health. Make it your mission to eradicate this in your organisation.
  • Foster inclusivity. Show that you value inclusivity and diversity in your hiring practices, team structures, and the way all employees are treated fairly. Individuals who feel that they are respected and valued are more likely to be engaged and productive.
  • Build social connections. Support a staff social club or informal get-togethers, including virtual events if necessary. Make sure no one is left out.
  • Encourage discussion around mental health. Leaders can set an example in creating mentally healthy workplaces by actively discussing mental health with more junior colleagues, to remove stigma and barriers to speaking out and seeking support.

Check in regularly

The answer to the question, ‘Are we okay?’, appears to be that many of us are not, at least some of the time. So set aside a slot in your diary on a regular basis to check on how individuals in your team are faring with stress, workload, personal issues and relationships with their colleagues. The effort you devote to this is likely to pay dividends in the form of increased productivity and engagement, plus lower staff turnover, in a mentally healthy environment.

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