Where companies fall down on mental health in the workplace

Monday, 13 February, 2017 - 11:00
Industry news


OHS professionals play a key role in the implementation of safety systems, including psychologically safe initiatives, according to a mental health expert, who said OHS needs to take a proactive approach to the issues rather than “waiting for a crisis”.

“Mental health is a serious issue in the workplace and becoming a bigger issue for businesses,” said Pedro Diaz, founder and CEO of the Mental Health Recovery Institute and former president of the Australian Association of Social Workers, NSW.

“The increased pressure of cost cutting and doing more with less, is placing significant strain, stress and pressure on staff across the country.

“Many Australian businesses are competing against multinationals who are able to source cheaper labour overseas and invest in technology to standardise and computerise activities normally undertaken by humans.

“As a result, jobs are being lost, outsourced and offshored. This level of change, pressure and disruption in the workplace combined with more challenging frontline issues is creating significant stress for workers and workplaces generally.”

It is no surprise that the presence of mental health issues in the workplace is on the rise, according to Diaz, who observed that while many companies have targets and programs to deal with workplace accidents and other issues such as bullying and harassment, most do not have programs to deal with mental health issues.

“Mental health issues silently affect absenteeism, productivity, morale, customer service and many other areas of a business,” he said.

“In effect, they cause significant financial loss.” 

Unless companies start taking workplace mental health seriously, Diaz said there will be a rise in the number of claims against directors and business owners from staff who feel their mental health has suffered due to poor workplace practices or a lack of regard for the mental health of staff in the workplace.

As such, he said PCBUs need to start looking at the impact of mental health issues in the workplace or face possible action against them personally for breach of duty of care or other forms of damages. 

“Recent Federal Court cases have raised serious questions around when directors may find themselves facing personal penalties,” he said.

“It appears directors may be personally liable for issues in the workplace even if their company does not break any laws.

“If the company is found to be at risk of breaking any laws, then directors and business owners could be in trouble.”

These recent cases mark quite a change in the way directors, owners and managers are seen by the courts, Diaz added.

“Organisations must start incorporating mental health into their corporate wellness programs and implementing mental health management planning and support systems into their workplace strategies to support staff at all levels,” he said.

Managers are also not trained to deal with mental health issues; they are trained to be managers and administrators, as Diaz said their focus is generally operational and business related.

Diaz also noted that workplaces still seem to be reactive rather than proactive to mental health safety and risk.

“We still don’t see mental health safety as important as physical safety,” he said.

“That’s probably to do with a lack of commitment to mental health safety from the executive suites in our country; and a leaning to oversimplify mental health.”