A focus on mental illness and mental health disorders miscategorises the nature of the issue, according to an expert in the area, who said that the big issues that impact performance, productivity and engagement in workplaces are everyday stress-related issues.
These include life, work and personal concerns that cause tension and stress, and which can grow into a debilitating condition if not checked, said Paul Flanagan, who has 30 years’ experience as a clinical and organisational psychologist working with employers and their people on mental health issues, psychological wellbeing and people risk management.
“It is the derailment of everyday psychological wellbeing that is the major issue here,” explained Flanagan, who was the founder of EAP firm Davidson Trahair e Corpsych and is now director of employee wellbeing consultancy Life Street.
The difference in focus between psychological wellbeing, and mental illness is not academic, but determines what is the right approach to prevention and early intervention for individuals and what are effective workplace and organisational strategies, he said.
Flanagan also observed that there seems to be an increase in reported mental health conditions in younger employees, but not necessarily in older employees.
“The question of the percentages of employees/people with mental health conditions, and the figure often quoted of 20 per cent or more, is fraught with definitional, measurement and cause and effect problems,” said Flanagan, who noted that these statistics are not based on actual diagnosed conditions, but on reported ‘symptoms’.
In isolation, these would not warrant a diagnosis: “in fact, they may be quite common, adaptive responses to life,” he said.
“Also, the measures used are anonymous surveys with no validity and increased awareness does lead to higher self-reporting.”
There are a number of common gaps and challenges for organisations from a WHS perspective in proactively addressing mental health problems, according to Flanagan.
The first challenge is understanding the nature of the issue and then understanding how the organisation and workplace impact this, negatively or positively.
From a WHS perspective, work-related factors are the most important to identify and address, whether they are the primary cause, or maybe exacerbating issues employees bring to work.
“As work and non-work factors quickly become entangled, it is important not to focus on the potential work factors only,” he said.
“To get on the front foot, WHS can be proactive by identifying risk situations that may trigger psychological concerns and develop an action plan to prevent or manage the risks.”
Depending on the situation and its duration, Flanagan said it could be worth getting input from a workplace psychologist in developing the risk management plan.
“It is, of course, also important to have a workforce wide program that proactively supports individuals’ psychological wellbeing – a positive approach is better than a mental disorders approach.”
Flanagan observed that managing life, work and a sense of wellbeing can be complex, or just “hard” when something abruptly derails wellbeing, or when a situation gradually nudges wellbeing into negative patterns.
“Either way, the effective solution is not found in ‘shotgun approaches’ such as psychological training programs,” he said.
“Personalised strategies, coaching and motivational support are required – a lot or a little, tailored to an individual’s needs.
“This is the core strength of an EAP-type program, if it operates well and has the right personnel.”
However, the weakness of many EAP programs is that they are focused on mental health disorders and are perceived as being for other people with problems, he said.
“Also, most EAPs rely on individuals seeking out counselling – unfortunately, many EAPs are not proactive,” said Flanagan.
There are a few barriers and limitations in this, and from a WHS perspective, Flanagan said most EAPs have very little or no connection with the workplace.
“They don’t work in partnership with WHS/HR to address work-related issues once presented, nor known and foreseeable risks,” he said.
A better approach is an EAP or wellbeing program that provides a range of services, resources and activities to better address psychological wellbeing across the board, which is not limited to ‘counselling’ as its core activity and which works more closely with WHS/HR to address work concerns and risk.
Flanagan outlined four key WHS strategies to better support mental health and related risk: