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Why is workplace mental health important, what is the business case and what are potential barriers?

The first article in the ‘Filling your Cup’ series to improve the health of people working in the community mental health sector.

Brought to you by WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council and written by Steph Thompson, WayAhead Workplaces Lead.

It may seem unnecessary to spend time outlining to those who work in the mental health setting why workplace mental health is important, given the level of mental health literacy is higher than average.

While people working in this sector come to this with a greater base level knowledge of what mental health and mental distress looks like, it has been the case in my experience that the practice of supporting, protecting and promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace can often be deprioritised.

This might be because people working in the health and care setting prioritise supporting their consumer’s needs. It would also surely be because the occupational stressors can be quite significant.

It is for these reasons, and a few others, that WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council are creating this series targeted towards our sector.

By raising awareness of the impacts that not prioritising workplace mental health and wellbeing can have and demonstrating what best practice looks like, then we hope that issues like burn out, overwhelm and workplace stress can be mitigated.

When you are the tool in your work, and that tool is being placed under significant stress day after day, sometimes taking a step back can be useful.

Why Workplace Mental Health?

I think with this audience, I don’t need to spend too long on explaining why the workplace is an essential environment to promote mental health and wellbeing.

Aside from the obvious that it is the “nice” and right thing to do, given we spend a large amount of time at work and bring our whole selves to work, by equipping workplaces to be mentally healthy, we can potentially save lives.

In fact, the 2020 Productivity Commission report into mental health has explicitly called out the need to equip workplaces to be mentally healthy.

Being employed can improve mental health and mentally healthy workplaces are important to maintain the good mental health of those who work there.

There’s also the significant fact that doing this makes great business sense.

Although this isn’t the driving influence that I prefer to focus on, it is certainly one that people in this sector need to be across when influencing workplaces and leaders to get on board and support mental health programs and initiatives.

Here are a few statistics from the Productivity Commission report:

  • People with mental ill-health took an average of 10 to 12 days per year off work due to psychological distress. Estimates for the cost of workplace absenteeism due to mental ill health were up to $10 billion per year.
  • On average, people with mental ill-health reduced the amount of work they did on 14 to 18 days per year because of their psychological distress.
  • While only about 6% of all workers compensation claims in Australia are for work related mental health conditions the cost of these claims is typically about 2.5 times the cost of other workers compensation claims.

So, not only is educating and empowering workplaces to support mental health ultimately going to mean that people remain well, but also, the organisation itself can benefit with fewer sick days, more engaged staff, higher productivity, and greater retention.

Compassion fatigue

The practice of self-compassion is not something that is inherently understood and is frequently ignored.

When people work in caring and supporting roles and industries (especially during a global pandemic where there is a global mental health crisis around us) then it is not uncommon for those workers to push harder.

To work more, to care and give more, usually at the detriment of their own wellbeing.

The most important way to deal with compassion fatigue and protect oneself from full burn out, is to use preventative factors.

Dr Sadhbh Joyce, Co-Founder and Senior Psychologist from Mindarma, is a resilience researcher who knows all there is to know about the importance of self-compassion and the impact compassion fatigue can have on one’s life.

She talks about her own lived experience of burn out and trauma and offers some incredible insights into how she gently cared for herself to heal and prioritise her mental health.

Read Dr Sadhbh’s article she wrote for WayAhead Workplaces to learn more about the research and evidence on compassion fatigue and her personal story nurturing herself back to health.

This article is one of a series of four in the WayAhead Workplaces and Mental Health Coordinating Council ‘Filling your Cup’ resource. Tune in on 25 November to read about the leadership capabilities that can support mental health in the workplace.

For more information on everything workplace health and wellbeing, check out the WayAhead Workplaces site, and sign up to the free e-newsletter

Find out more about the ‘Filling your Cup’ series