Mental health: Where to start?

There is growing recognition of the need to manage psychological health in the workplace, as well as physical health and safety – which is arguably a more mature topic. Psychological (or mental) health is often less tangible to address, and there may be less guidance or support available. Therefore, it is often the case that approaches to mental health and well-being are more fragmented and less evidence-based.

But to reduce the harm (and escalating compensation claims) that we are seeing in many countries, mental health must receive the same focus as physical health and safety.

Regulators are increasingly placing more emphasis on mental health in the workplace, perhaps under the label of managing stress or psychosocial hazards. The legal framework in many countries places a duty on employers to eliminate or minimise exposure to work-related hazards that can lead to psychological harm.

Psychological harm includes conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleep disorders.

It’s clear though, that many organisations are unsure about where to start when addressing mental health and well-being in the workplace. It’s easy to focus on those interventions that are quick to implement. However, many of these interventions will not have a real impact.

“Mental health in the workplace has often become synonymous with free yoga classes, fruit boxes and awareness morning teas. While these are simple to implement and high profile, the evidence shows they have little material impact on mental health outcomes”.

Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), 2022, p.6

Mental health interventions: What works?

The most effective interventions require more investment, but they will lead to long-term improvements in mental health. This is especially the case for those interventions that focus on prevention, rather than managing issues when they arise. There is a need to shift the conversations from simple interventions to those that will have lasting effects; and to move from treatment to prevention.

  • Quick fixes, although easy to implement, will have a low impact.
  • The more difficult interventions will have maximum impact.

The following diagram from CEDA highlights the range of interventions that may be available and illustrates the relationship between difficulty and effectiveness.

Mental health interventions, CEDA
(Committee for Economic Development of Australia, CEDA, 2022, p.37)

The same guidance states that there is strong evidence that work design promotes positive mental health outcomes in the workplace through enhanced employee well-being and productivity levels. For details of how aspects of our work can impact on a range of outcomes, and how to design “good” work, see this article on work design.

Good work design will help to prevent mental health issues, i.e. before they become a problem.

The selection of appropriate interventions may be informed by a risk management approach, possibly by adopting the same framework that is used to manage physical health and safety (e.g., Identify, Assess, Control, Review). The appropriate interventions for your company or site will be informed by the nature of the hazards (e.g., the demands of the work, how work is managed, the layout of the workplace).

Check with your local health and safety regulator for specific requirements to manage the risks from psychosocial hazards, particularly if there are references to “reasonably foreseeable hazards” or eliminating risks so far as is “reasonably practicable”. Remember to consult with all workers when identifying psychosocial hazards, and when selecting control measures or interventions.

Work plays such a key role in many people’s lives, and a focus on mental health and well-being has the potential to benefit both individuals and the organisations for which they work. Although a nice-to-have, free yoga and fresh fruit are unlikely to be sufficient.

Further reading

Mental health and the workplace. A report that focuses on the interventions and investments that businesses can make to address mental well-being. Published by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), 2022.

Principles of good work design. A work health and safety handbook. Published by Safe Work Australia. This handbook contains ten principles of good work design that can be applied to help support better work health and safety outcomes and business productivity. The principles are deliberately high level and should be broadly applicable across a wide range of businesses and workplaces.

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