Creating a healthy workplace

Woman in COVID-19 face mask on public transport

The emergence of COVID-19 has significantly changed the way we live and the way we work.

We have progressively adapted to the evolving situation and organisations and leaders are looking to enhance the way they support their workforce. Importantly, health and mental health have become daily topics of concern and conversation.

Mental health, just like physical health, is what gives us the capacity to enjoy life and to deal with the challenges we encounter along the way. Mental health is important at every stage of life – during childhood, throughout adolescence and through adulthood.

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual can realise their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and can contribute to their community.

We are all vulnerable

Mental health conditions do not discriminate and during our lifetime almost half of us will be impacted – regardless of age, geography, occupation, gender or any other factor.

Mental health is a complex subject and not experiencing a mental health condition does not imply that your mental health is flourishing.

Mental health conditions exist in workplaces across every industry sector and the workplace can affect the mental health of people within it, and vice versa. This was already the situation before COVID-19, and has become increasingly important given the changing circumstances that we now find ourselves in.

New language has emerged with terms such as ‘lockdown’ and ‘quarantine’ now part of our daily vernacular.

We are unable to see family, friends and colleagues in person with many of our interactions now taking place via a screen. Major life events and milestones are postponed or held under very different circumstances.

We are living through a period of significant uncertainty and continue to be presented with scenarios that are described as our “new normal”. Collectively, these have created increasing challenges to maintaining good mental health.

Four people discuss mental health in a modern office

Workplace wellbeing matters

Regardless of the factors contributing to an individual developing a mental health condition, the workplace can play a significant role in providing an environment where people can flourish.

Great workplaces want to provide a supporting culture for their people. Apart from the genuine care for employees, the 2014 PwC report on mental health in the workplace outlines the benefits of implementing a mental health action plan in the workplace which include:

  1. Shorter periods of sick leave
  2. Less sick leave related to alcohol or substance abuse
  3. Employees less likely to take leave on a recurring basis
  4. An increase in the number of hours worked
  5. Improved ability to recover from periods of illness
  6. An increase in achieving workplace goals
  7. A reduction in the intention to retire
  8. A reduction in the number of days worked under the influence of alcohol or other substances
  9. Minimising loss of productivity when intervening early
  10. A reduction in the social isolation that people experiencing depression may feel

While there are a wide range of mental health initiatives that will provide positive support for your workforce, it is equally important to embed simple actions that can be taken every day by anyone.

Today, Thursday 10 September 2020, is World Suicide Prevention Day and the purpose of this day is to raise awareness around the globe that suicide can be prevented.

It is also R U OK? Day which is a national day of action that reminds Australians to check in with people who may be struggling with the ups and downs of life. If there is someone you are concerned about ask, “Are you OK?”, not just on this day – but every day.

Looking down on a desk with two people talking about mental health

Signs to recognise

While every individual is different and we respond to situations in different ways, there are some signs someone may be struggling with their mental health:

  • Feeling unhappy, sad, irritable or lacking energy and motivation
  • Change in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or not at all)
  • Isolating or withdrawing from activities or colleagues, friends or family
  • A decline in work habits (punctuality, reliability, error rates, presentation or performance)
  • Change in appetite and/or fluctuating weight or rapid weight loss
  • Increased use of substances such as alcohol
  • Emotional outbursts (sudden changes in mood, distress or anger)
  • Use language indicating guilt or worthlessness ('I’m a failure', 'It’s my fault')
  • Subtle changes to the way they are behaving or thinking – if something doesn’t “feel right” ask!

Helpful conversations

If you have a concern, take the time to check in with them and ask if they are ok. Anyone can open a conversation using the following tips:

  • Ask – ask if they are ok or express your concern ('I’ve noticed that...')
  • Listen – tell them you are there to listen and allow them the time to talk
  • Empathise – consider the needs of people different to yourself, especially those who may be vulnerable
  • Reflect – take time to share back your understanding to let them know they have been heard
  • Validate – provide validation for their feelings and concerns
  • Connect – ask if it ok to connect them with someone who may be able to assist (Employee Assistance Program, a medical practitioner or other support program) or provide them with specific phone numbers or names of relevant services
  • Support – check in with them again and let them know you are there to support them

Two women wearing masks walking their dogs in a leafy suburb

Stay social, even at a distance

In addition to checking in with someone you might be concerned about, there are a number of other factors that support good mental health.

Eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient exercise, taking regular breaks, limiting the amount of time on technology and developing good sleep hygiene all have a beneficial impact on our physical health and our mental health.

Perhaps of greatest importance is maintaining social connection with family, friends and colleagues.

While video calls have become standard practice, telephone calls, group activities and text messaging can also play a role keeping us connected.

Unfortunately, the term ‘social distancing’ has become commonplace – what we really need is physical distancing while we improve our social connection.

Leaders need confidence

The goal we should be heading towards is creating a culture where employees take accountability for their individual health and wellbeing, people leaders feel confident to engage with their people around health issues, and everyone feels supported by their organisation.

Having a mentally healthy workforce is not only great for business, it’s great for your people.

Mentally healthy people have the ability to deal more effectively with stress, the flexibility to adapt to change, the agility to balance work, rest and play, and have a greater zest for life.

Most important of all, mentally healthy people ask for, and accept, help when they need it.

What you can do

Give your workforce the right support to maintain and improve their mental health.

Video: Talking about your Mental Wellbeing from Assure Programs.

  • Speak to Assure Programs about comprehensive Employee Assistance Programs and how to access a range of online sessions to help teams and leaders have R U OK? conversations.
  • Contact Communicorp and speak to mental health experts about training and workshops to manage mental health and build resilience in your workplace.

Michele Grow is the CEO of Mental Health and Wellness for the APM Group.