The average person will spend a third of their lives at work. While our jobs can provide a sense of purpose, fulfilment and opportunities for growth, they can also present challenges that negatively impact our mental health. From demanding workloads to organisational stressors, the risks of experiencing mental health issues are ever-present.

Mental illness is now the leading cause of absenteeism and long-term work incapacity across the nation. New data from Safe Work Australia shows a 36.9 per cent increase in serious workers’ compensation claims between 2017/8 and 2021/22, with the median time lost totalling more than four times that of time lost to physical injuries and illnesses. 

The human cost of mental ill health is high – and the economic cost is too: lost productivity, staff absenteeism and employee turnover is now costing companies an estimated $39 billion each year. 

As such, managing psychosocial hazards in the workplace is as much about safety of staff as it is about creating an environment that drives increased productivity, staff retention and reduced costs.

Understanding workplace mental health risk factors 

So, what can organisations do to get on the front foot when it comes to workplace mental health? First, they need to understand that they have a legal obligation to manage the mental health risks that arise from work. 

Those risk factors can be grouped into the following three categories, says Dr Aimee Gayed, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute: 

  • Organisational factors, including what Dr Gayed calls the ‘psychological safety climate’, which is the extent to which a workplace values staff mental health and whether or not there are stigmatising attitudes towards it.
  • Team-level factors, including the nature of the working environment and the relationships between individual staff members, their colleagues and superiors. Are these relationships supportive? Is action taken to prevent bullying?
  • Job-level factors, including individual’s role and responsibilities, the level of control they have over their work and the demands that employers place on them.

Establishing a mentally healthy workplace requires a holistic approach that acknowledges and addresses all three of these categories. It’s also imperative that organisations lead from the top down.

“Researchers have identified five key strategies, including designing work to minimise harm, enhancing personal resilience, promoting early help-seeking, supporting recovery and return to work, and building organisational resilience,” Dr Gayed says. 

“Managers play a pivotal role in implementing these strategies, underscoring the importance of equipping them with the necessary skills through evidence-based mental health training.”

Why training is the key to a mentally healthy workplace  

It’s easy to recommend a cultural overhaul, but the how of implementing these strategies at work can feel overwhelming, particularly in a challenging economic climate where many organisations are already trying to do more with less.

That’s where skills-based mental health training, particularly training that targets people in leadership roles, can help. Equipping staff with the skills and confidence to identify, talk about and respond to mental health concerns within their teams is one of the most effective steps businesses can take to mitigate psychosocial risk. 

Murrindindi Shire Council is one organisation that’s investing in mental health training for their staff. Councils face unique workplace-related psychosocial risks such as job pressures and a diverse work environment that sees staff working across multiple locations.

In the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns, the Council’s Governance and Risk team noticed a decrease in employee wellbeing across the organisation. In response, they enrolled the Council’s leadership team into two workplace mental health training programs delivered by Black Dog Institute.

“The content, face-to-face delivery and cost was a significant reason that we went with Black Dog Institute,” says Dee Welch, the Council’s Occupational Health & Safety Coordinator. 

Called Managing Team Wellbeing, this three-hour workshop training teaches managers to:

  • Identify behaviour changes that can indicate psychological distress
  • Lead effective conversations about stress, mental health and wellbeing
  • Understand, access and connect staff to a range of supportive resources
  • Support staff members to return to work after a mental health-related absence
  • Promote individual and team wellbeing in the workplace

The program was developed from Black Dog Institute’s randomised control trial to measure whether manager mental health training can reduce the occupational impact of mental health disorders and reduce sickness absence among employees. Results demonstrated a 10:1 return on investment through a significant reduction in sickness absence among the managers’ employees. It also improved managers’ confidence in and their likelihood of contacting employees off work due to mental health problems. 

For the Murrundindi team, the results were remarkable: after completing the training, 100 per cent of participants felt confident identifying the warning signs of mental ill health (compared to 39 per cent prior) and discussing rehabilitation/return-to-work plans with staff members on sickness absence (compared to 60.6 per cent prior).

Further, 100 per cent of participants said they were likely to engage in regular, one-on-one catch ups with staff to monitor work and wellbeing and to implement workplace adjustments or appropriate graduated return-to-work plans for employees experiencing mental health problems.

Murrundindi Council has now signed their leaders up for further training, Managing for Team Wellbeing: Navigating Conversations, an advanced workshop that builds on skills from the foundation program, to build skills in performance management and discussing mental health challenges. 

Learning from the leaders in workplace mental health 

Managing for Team Wellbeing and Navigating Conversations are just two of a suite of Black Dog Institute mental health training programs that offer practical prevention and early intervention strategies. 

Others include Protecting and Promoting Mental Health at Work, which targets senior and team leaders looking to understand the risk management process and apply hazard controls, and Recognise and Respond – Suicide Prevention, an e-learning program that equips all team members with the skills to save a life. 

Collectively, these programs draw on more than two decades of Black Dog Institute’s world-leading workplace mental health research. Course content is regularly evaluated to ensure that the training effectively meets key objectives of managing mental health and responsiveness to issues in the workplace.

This sponsored editorial is brought to you by Black Dog Institute. To find out more about how Black Dog Institute training can support your organisation, please visit the Black Dog Institute website

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