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Mental health is the next big WHS issue – are you ready?

Mental health in the workplace has again come under the spotlight, this time with the findings that mental stress claims in the public service have increased by 30 per cent in the past three years.

A federal government review of the Comcare insurance scheme has uncovered some interesting trends. The finding which received the most publicity is that claims for psychological injury were four times higher in the federal public service compared to the private sector. (See the article in SMH)

Mental stress now makes up 12 per cent of all Comcare compensation claims, and accounts for a third of the cost.

The review also found that mental stress claimants took an average of 12 months to recover, compared to three months for car accident victims or four months for workers hurt in a fall.

Previous research (via ABS) found that across all sectors, mental health now beats physical injury as the cause of the longest absences from work. On average, each employee loses 3.2 days of works each year due to workplace stress. Safe Work Australia says workers with a job-related mental disorder take an average of 10.8 weeks off a year.

Getting ready to talk about mental health at work

The Comcare review has sparked numerous opinions about why there are more mental stress claims among federal public servants.

But I think this overlooks the underlying concern, that mental stress is a growing issue in Australian workplaces, and one that needs to be openly addressed.

On one hand, it could be seen as a positive progress that more people are willing to come forward with psychological injuries and work-related stress complaints. It shows an increased understanding and acceptance of mental health.

While this is great, is also means employers need to be equipped to manage conversations around mental health and stress.

Chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Professor Allan Fels, says more employers need to encourage open discussion about mental health. “Talking openly about mental health has become more prominent in wider society but it is still taboo in many workplaces,” Fels said. “Mental health is stuck where occupational health and safety was 20 years ago,” said Fels (see full article in AFR).

Added to this, recent research from the Australia Institute found that one in two Australians would feel uncomfortable discussing issues about mental health with their manager. They felt their managers were poorly skilled in discussing sensitive workplace issues.

So what can you do as an employer?

Mental health is a big and highly sensitive issue. Your employees are not going to suddenly feel comfortable talking about it unless you create the right environment – one that is safe, open and informed – and your managers are properly trained.

Sane Australia has a comprehensive workplace  program “Mindful Employer” – find out more about it here.

The elearning component of the Mindful Employer program contains covers: an introduction to mental health and mental illness, how to work with a colleague with a mental illness, and for managers – how to manage a range of situations around mental illness.

To supplement this kind of professional training, you might also want to consider other steps to creating a mentally healthy organisation:

1. Identify and try to limit the unnecessary causes of stress – any bullying or harassment in particular. Also, make sure employees have a number of ways to complain, or to say that something’s unfair – they may not always be comfortable in talking to their immediate supervisor.

2. Educate your employees about stress management strategies and techniques. Make sure your corporate health program provides adequate resources around stress management. Many workplaces now provide massage, yoga classes and meditation sessions as a core part of their health & wellness programs. You may want to consider providing some positive psychology and/or resilience building resources, such as training in CBT or other  “thought awareness” strategies.

3. Third, start to create both a system and a culture which encourages conversations around mental health. Create or promote avenues for your employees to talk more openly about mental health issues, both formally and informally, and work on building an environment of trust where employees feel safe to raise personal issues.  (Make sure you supplement this with professional training for managers so they respond appropriately.) You may need to develop clear policies and frameworks for both team members and team leaders.

  Healthworks provides a range of educational products and services around mental health.

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