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Mental health is a state of wellbeing that allows people to realise their potential while coping with the ordinary challenges of life.

Good mental health supports people to thrive in their life, work and relationships with others. Meanwhile, mental ill-health can have a significant negative impact on individuals and the workplace. Businesses must consider the psychological health and wellbeing of workers in the same way they do physical health.

How common are mental health issues

It is estimated that, at any point in time, 1 in 5 working age people will be suffering from mental illness. A further one-sixth of the population will be suffering from symptoms associated with mental ill health, such as worry, sleep problems and fatigue, which, while not meeting criteria for a diagnosed mental illness, will be affecting their ability to function at work.

Given the statistics, it is likely that you will come across mental illness in your workplace. Mental illness can affect anyone, of any age and background. However, with support most people can and do recover. Achieving and maintaining good mental health and wellbeing is important for everyone.

Mental illness fact vs fiction

FictionFact
Mental illness only affects a few people Mental illness is common. One in five Australians will experience a mental illness.
Mental illness is caused by a personal weakness A mental illness is not a character flaw. It is caused by genetic, biological, social and environmental factors (such as work).
People with a mental illness can ‘pull themselves out of it’ A mental illness is not caused by personal weakness and is not ‘cured’ by personal strength.
People with a mental illness never get better With appropriate treatment, many people can and do recover from mental illness.
Mental health issues will permanently reduce your capacity to function in a work environment During periods of mental ill health, productivity may be affected. But recovery generally brings a return to previous functioning levels.

Good business sense

Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, cost Australian businesses about $6 billion dollars each year through absenteeism, reduced work performance, increased turnover rates and compensation claims. This is primarily because psychological injuries typically require three times more time off work than other injuries. Workplaces with poor psychological working conditions also accrue 43% more sick days per month.

In addition, mental illness is associated with high levels of presenteeism, where an employee remains at work despite experiencing symptoms resulting in lower levels of productivity.

Businesses that create and promote mentally healthy workplaces will benefit from improved productivity, performance and staff retention, and be perceived as an employer of choice. For every $1 spent on mental health initiatives, there’s an average return on investment of $2.30.

A mentally healthy workplace

Work is a big part of our daily lives and can help to prevent mental ill-health by giving us a feeling of purpose and a sense of contribution, particularly if there is good supervision and favourable workplace conditions.

A mentally healthy workplace has measures in place to prevent harm by identifying risks to mental health, managing harm from an early stage, and supporting recovery. At the same time, employers can encourage and promote positive work-related factors by:

  • having a positive workplace culture where mental health is everyone’s responsibility and people feel safe to talk about mental health
  • considering mental health in every aspect of business
  • minimising psychosocial hazards such as:
    • bullying and conflict
    • fatigue
    • work-related violence
    • stressful working conditions
  • supporting people with mental health conditions appropriately
  • actively making the support of workers’ mental health a priority
  • reducing stigma and discrimination.

The majority of mental illnesses in the workplace are treatable and in some cases may be preventable. The consequences of mental disorders can be reduced through appropriate support and clinical treatment. Employers and workplaces can play an active and significant role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of their workers as well as assisting in recovery from mental health issues.

Workplace psychological hazards

Workplace psychological hazards are anything in the design or management of work that increases the risk of work related stress. A stress response is the physical, mental and emotional reaction that occurs when a worker perceives the demands of their work exceed their ability or resources to cope. Work-related stress if prolonged and/or severe can cause both psychological and physical harm.

Some of the causes of psychological health issues in the workplace include:

  • excessive time pressures, unreasonable deadlines
  • poorly managed organisational change and support
  • conflict between people, harassment and bullying
  • exposure to occupational violence and aggression.

For more information see our psychological hazards and work-related stress page.

Leadership and management commitment

Leaders and managers should visibly demonstrate and communicate the workplace's commitment to building a mentally healthy workplace. These actions can automatically minimise the adverse effects of psychological risks. It shows workers that positive mental health is important and encourages them to engage in positive practices.

Leaders can demonstrate their commitment by:

  • developing and endorsing workplace policies that align with a mentally healthy workplace
  • having a positive and encouraging workplace culture where workers feel safe to report psychological hazards and risks so that they can be addressed early
  • promoting learning and development opportunities around the effective identification and management of psychological hazards
  • implementing and participating in programs and initiatives that contribute to a mentally healthy workplace
  • circulating and displaying communications such as emails, newsletters and posters with key messages that promote a commitment to a mentally healthy workplace
  • modelling psychological self-care such as work/life balance, regular breaks, open communication and attention to physical health.

Managers/supervisors

It is important for managers and supervisors to have the knowledge and skills to be able to effectively communicate, empower their team, manage their workers stress and emotions, as well as manage difficult situations when they arise.

There are particular competencies that, when achieved by managers, are shown to reduce work-related stress and promote positive mental health. These competencies centre on:

Being respectful and responsible

  • integrity: be respectful and honest with workers
  • managing emotions: behave consistently and calmly around the team
  • considerate approach: be thoughtful in managing others and delegating.

Managing and communicating existing and future work

  • proactive work management: monitor and review existing work, allowing future prioritisation and planning
  • problem solving: deal with problems promptly, rationally and responsibly
  • participative/empowering: meet, listen to and consult with the team. Provide direction, autonomy and development opportunities to individuals.

Managing the team

  • personally accessible: available to talk one-on-one
  • sociable: relaxed approach, such as socialising and using humour
  • empathetic engagement: seek to understand each individual in the team in terms of their health and satisfaction, motivation, point of view and life outside work.

Managing difficult situations

  • manage conflict: deal with conflicts decisively, promptly and objectively
  • use of organisational resources: seek advice when necessary from other managers and divisions/work areas
  • take responsibility for resolving issues: be accountable and take the lead for resolving problems.

It is in the best interest of the workers and the business for managers to understand and develop these competencies.

A self-assessment is a great starting point for managers to identify and measure their strengths and development areas across the competencies. However, self-perceptions may differ from the team, peer and manager perceptions. Consider consulting other sources of data or information to inform strengths and development areas and continue to perform assessments on a regular basis.

Consultation

Consultation is a key element of providing a mentally healthy and safe work environment. While it is a requirement to consult workers and health and safety representatives in issues that directly affect them, input and participation from workers can improve decision-making on psychological health and safety.

Methods for consulting workers can vary according to the size of the workplace and the distribution of workers across sites and shifts.

Examples of good consultation practices include:

  • pre job start or toolbox discussions
  • focus groups
  • worker surveys
  • WHS committee meetings
  • team meetings
  • one-on-one discussions.

See the Code of Practice: Work health and safety consultation, co-operation and co-ordination for further details.

Training and education

Providing information, instruction, training and supervision can help to protect workers from psychological health risks.

Training, instruction and information should include:

  • workplace practices concerning psychological health and organisational values
  • induction information on the expected workplace behaviour and conduct including all relevant policies and procedures, for example the prevention of bullying, harassment and violence at work
  • management training to assist managers and supervisors support workers, identify hazards and risks at work and manage conflict.

SafeWork SA's role

SafeWork SA’s role is to ensure that the employer and employees meet their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA). This means  employers must manage, identify and communicate psychosocial hazards that could result in a psychological injury.

You can request that SafeWork SA investigate a psychological risk by completing the Psychological Risk Complaint Form or by phoning our Help Centre on 1300 365 255.

When making a complaint it is important to note that our role is not to:

  • advocate for an individual
  • become involved in the details of a workplace conflict
  • provide legal advice
  • mediate between persons involved
  • secure an apology or compensation
  • remove an alleged bully from the workplace.

SafeWork SA will prioritise all psychological risk complaints according to the risk to the health and safety of people in the workplace. We can only act on complaints if there is evidence to substantiate the allegations.

Further information and resources

Mentally Healthy Workplaces during COVID-19 - National Mental Health Commission

Healthy workers & workplaces

Health and safety checklist

Top 10 Tips to maintain your mental health

Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties - Safe Work Australia

Psychological health and safety in the workplace: a national guide (video presentation) - Safe Work Australia

Psychosocial risk assessment toolkit - Work Health and Safety Queensland

Mentally healthy workplaces toolkit - Work Health and Safety Queensland

Psychological health for small business - Work Health and Safety Queensland

Open your world - SA Government

Support services

In case of emergency

GPs can also refer you to specialist psychologist services, such as a Mental Health Shared Care Plan.

Support services and initiatives

  • Australian Human Rights Commission’s Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers provides information on how to appropriately support workers with mental illness and how to develop and promote a safe and healthy work environment for all workers.
  • beyondblue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live.
  • Black Dog Institute workplace mental health and wellbeing programs help to create a work environments that promote mental wellbeing, increased worker engagement and greater productivity.
  • Department of Health has made the search for mental health services and resources easier by handpicking resources from publicly funded providers.
  • Heads Up a national campaign to support and create mentally healthy workplaces, with resources for employers, workers, managers and small business owners. The Mental health in the workplace toolbox training package is a free resource that includes a 90-minute training session delivered by a nominated professional or educator to team leaders and managers who are then equipped to deliver mental health toolbox talks to their team.
  • headspace is the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, and provides early intervention mental health services for young Australians aged 12-25 years.
  • MATES in Construction is helping reduce the high level of suicide within the Australian construction industry.
  • The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance is a national approach by business, community and government encouraging Australian workplaces to become mentally healthy.
  • SANE Australia is a national charity helping Australians affected by mental illness and provides resources to help employers respond to workplace mental health issues.
  • Suicide Prevention Australia provides national leadership for the meaningful reduction of suicide in Australia.
  • World Health Organization for the latest international information, publications, statistics and more about mental health.