Posted: 16 Aug. 2017 5 min. read

Minding minds at work

Three ways to create an integrated approach to wellbeing

Mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness, absence and long term work incapacity in most developed countries.

The newly released Australian Workers Compensation Statistics in July 2017 indicate that in 2013/14 the average time lost for serious claims that arose from mental disorders was 15 weeks. This was the highest of all diseases and accounted for more than double the average time lost for other serious claims (5-6 weeks).  Additionally the median compensation paid was the highest for mental disorders. It is clear that as Australian organisations increasingly grapple with how to optimise productivity to ensure their business is sustainable, mental wellbeing has emerged as a significant business risk.

There are increasing cases of people’s mental health being affected through stress with resulting increases of reported anxiety and depression in workplaces. It is estimated that 17% of the working age population is suffering from symptoms related to mental wellbeing – most commonly depression and anxiety. A further 17% will be suffering from symptoms associated with mental ill health including worry, sleep issues and fatigue.

At the same time there is an epidemic of coverage of and focus on wellbeing at the individual level. Quinoa for breakfast, yoga at lunch, meditation after work. In response more and more organisations are creating well intentioned wellbeing at work programs focussed on the individual and at the same time asking the question of themselves: is this approach really hitting the mark? The answer most likely is – no.

With this increasing focus on wellbeing in organisations and well intentioned pressure on individuals to participate in activities that make them ‘more well’, means organisations are focusing on the wrong thing. The pressure on individuals to solve their wellbeing challenges and live a life of optimised wellbeing 24/7 leaves out a critical ingredient that could create the step change needed to genuinely create change – the workplace!

A mentally healthy workplace creates a positive working environment that builds individual skills and resilience, reduces workplace risks to mental health and supports staff with mental health conditions.

What environments are we creating at work that contribute to negatively impacting people’s wellbeing?  What could be done to enable workplaces to create ‘good’ work? We know an outcome of good work is employees experiencing better wellbeing.

Put another way, what would be the impact on collective wellbeing if organisations created a place that empowered people to optimise their productivity and individual wellbeing was an outcome rather than the primary goal.

To answer these questions organisations need to understand what is really going on with wellbeing in their workplace.

Yoga, fruit bowls and meditation are all great to increase individual resilience to better manage an increasingly complex environment. The harder problem to solve is how to help organisations prevent key modifiable risks, promote protective factors and support people. Even in the face of KPIs that demand optimised performance and profit which compete with optimising the health, safety and wellbeing of its people.

Most organisations currently do not know what their key mental wellbeing risks are or what to do about them. As organisations consider optimising productivity through providing a better employee experience it is important to recognise that there is a spectrum of worker profiles; the healthy worker, the at-risk worker and the ill worker. An integrated intervention approach needs to be built around these profiles. This is grounded in three types of intervention: primary, secondary and tertiary.

1. Primary intervention targets key modifiable mental wellbeing risk factors that apply to your people. Begin by asking, what are your organisation’s key mental wellbeing risks are and what are you doing to prevent or reduce their impact? Key risks typically include: work demands, control, relationships and conflict.

2. Secondary intervention promotes protective factors for workers. Begin by asking how does your organisation support leaders and teams as well through the traditional focus on individuals and their resilience. What focus do you have on building KPIs that encourage care, collaboration and inclusion? How do you support leaders to put their own oxygen masks on first and equip themselves to actively support the mental wellbeing of their people? What systems and processes enable teams to support each other and implement their own ideas?

3. Tertiary intervention supports worker recovery from illness. How does your organisation tackle stigma about mental wellbeing?  How do you encourage early help seeking and promote pathways to care?

Most work places do not understand their mental health and wellbeing risks or how to mitigate them. We can help you move from information to targeted practical action.