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Mental health in the workplace: what really helps (and what doesn’t)

Thursday, 28 November, 2019 - 09:15
Industry news
National News

While most organisations mean well when it comes to improving workplace mental health, there remains a significant gap between mental ill-health awareness and mental health action, according to an expert.

Some of the biggest issues for organisations lie in defining success and excellence when it comes to workplace mental health programmes and mental health outcomes.

“Sadly, we still see metrics such as ‘an increase in EAP usage’, ‘number of people who would recommend a course’ ‘number of staff trained’, and ‘number of new people reporting mental ill-health’ being put forward, and even celebrated at an industry level, as evidence of best practice and program success,” said David Burroughs, a mental health workplace strategist, psychologist and partner with Ethics Applied, a boutique firm specialising in practically applying the latest research into behavioural ethics to workplace behaviour and cultural challenges.

“It is worrisome at best and not a good look for the workplace mental health sector,” he said.

Burroughs, who will be speaking ahead at the ACT Health & Safety Conference, said organisations need to become more sophisticated in understanding and measuring workplace mental health outcomes (and not just individual mental health outcomes) and outcomes across workplace factors that influence mental health.

“Hopefully we will see more reporting of metrics such as the following, and less reliance on the usual suspects that have dominated in recent years,” said Burroughs:

  • Reduced rates and severity of mental ill-health related injuries
  • Reduced rates of mental ill-health related sick leave
  • Reduced interpersonal grievances/bullying and harassment claims
  • Increased productivity
  • Increased rates of early help-seeking behaviour
  • Psychosocial climate improvement, for example, increased trust and cohesion, supportive leadership behaviour, engagement
  • Reduced ergonomic/secondary psychological issues
  • Increased levels of psychological safety


A real challenge for many organisations is to move away from existing mental ill-health ‘symptom-based’ approaches to more evidence-informed ‘systems-based’ approaches, he explained.

“Many organisations are wedded to the medicalised notions of workplace mental health and have invested heavily in these areas, so it is a big ask for them to move from a reactive model to a more proactive approach,” said Burroughs.

“While it is easy to raise awareness of mental illness, participate in landmark days and campaigns, host a resilience course, measure biometrics, and have a guest speaker, it takes a different level of commitment, different capability set and a different way of thinking to actually address things like psychological job demands, psychosocial climate and job design – things that lead to real workplace improvement in mental health, risk management and performance.”  

At present, Burroughs observed that many organisations remain stuck in what he called a “tertiary cycle”, in that they focus exclusively on the management of individual symptomology rather than understanding and addressing the underlying causal and contributory psychosocial factors that may have influenced symptoms emerging in the first place.

In some areas, there is still a sense that doing something is better than doing nothing when it comes to workplace mental health, which he said is sadly not always true.

“While a small number of mental health programmes may improve mental health, many are benign, and I still see a number of programs, approaches and practices that may actually do harm to both individuals and organisations,” he said.

In fact, some of the most popular mental health/resilience programs available have recently been found to be seriously deficient when subject to academic scrutiny.

“How do we equip people to tell the difference between what actually works and what doesn’t?” Burroughs said.

“It is a real challenge for organisations to develop genuine internal knowledge and capability in workplace mental health to help them fully understand what their organisation might need from a psychosocial climate perspective and to be able to ensure provider accountability and measure program efficacy.

“At the moment I would refer to the workplace mental health landscape as being ‘provider-driven’ rather than driven by the actual needs to organisations, and I think the tertiary institutions and industry groups have a real opportunity to increase knowledge and capabilities in this domain and help bring more rigour to the sector.”

Burroughs has also observed a number of important trends for organisations with regards to mental health – one of them being workplaces adopting a common language around mental health as a positive concept, rather than the current deficit model that he says has been allowed to perpetuate.

The World Health Organisation has defined mental health as a positive concept for many years, and Australia has a National Communications Charter for Mental Health and Suicide that defines mental health as a positive concept.

“Yet we still see mental health confused with mental illness across many workplace settings,” he said.

“I would hope to see things like the National Communications Charter being adopted as a common language across all workplaces, and with it, a greater focus on supporting the mental health needs of all people, not just responding to the needs of those experiencing mental ill-health.”

Another significant trend will be a greater emphasis on workplace psychological climate and people’s experience of work as they move towards more prevention/early intervention approaches.

“There are decades of great academic research examining things like psychological job demands and workplace climate and their influence on workplace mental health, however, sadly so much of this seems to have been ignored,” said Burroughs.

“I expect to see a move away from individualised notions of mental health and much more focus on areas such as psychological safety, civility and the importance of ethical workplace cultures.”

Another trend Burroughs hopes to see is increasing the professionalisation of the workplace mental health landscape.

It is largely unregulated at present, with a very large proportion of providers operating outside of recognised industry bodies such as the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Authority.

“At present, there isn’t anything stopping someone from calling themselves a mental health expert or mental health thought leader, hanging up a shingle and consulting to organisations in this area, and no mechanism to ensure provider accountability,” he said.

“This really worries me, as mental ill-health is a very serious issue and the repercussions of getting things wrong are huge, not just for people, but for organisations and the society at large.”

There are a number of steps organisations and OHS professionals need to take in response to these challenges and issues, and Burroughs said that education is key: “not additional education raising awareness of mental illness, but education around psychosocial climate, education around how to undertake job design, how to integrate mental health initiatives, identify and mitigate psychosocial risk, and most importantly, how to ensure proper program evaluation,” he said.

“I believe it is incumbent on organisations and OHS professionals to understand the limitations of many of the current approaches to workplace mental health and for them to start focussing on workplace psychosocial climate factors and how these influence people experience work.”

With societal stress and the complexity of people roles constantly increasing, and the workplace itself recognised as a determinant of mental health, Burroughs said organisations and OHS professionals need to get much more serious about how they approach workplace mental health.  


Burroughs will be speaking ahead at the ACT Health & Safety Conference, which will be held on Friday 29 November 2019 from 9.00 am to 4.45 pm at Federal Golf Club, Gowrie Drive, Red Hill. The conference will be presented in partnership with the Commonwealth Safety Management Forum and the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety. For more information visit the conference website, email or call (03) 8336 1995.