Why OHS needs to be more proactive on mental health in the workplace

Tuesday, 27 September, 2016 - 10:00
Industry news


Most organisations don’t have proactive approaches to improving mental health in the workplace and need an evidence-based approach to systematically improving mental health, according to an expert in the area.

While many organisations have employee assistance programs (EAPs) in place to help employees cope with mental illness and its onset through the likes of high anxiety, depression or stress-related issues, there are still barriers to the adoption of proactive and holistic mental health strategies.

“There is still a stigma around mental health in the workplace – the stigma of mental illness and actually putting up your hand and saying you’re struggling,” said Gabrielle Kelly, director of the wellbeing & resilience Centre at the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI).

“However, this is improving. Both managers and employees are more confident in having a conversation about getting support for mental illness.

“I think this is a terrific step forward – but that’s the size of it.”

Kelly, who recently spoke at the SIA National Safety Convention in Sydney, observed that many businesses are doing better in the area of physical health, through evidence-based approaches and assessing the impact of physical wellbeing on productivity and capability in the workforce.

Companies need to take a similar approach to mental health, according to Kelly.

“I think mental health is the same as physical health,” she said.

“There’s a great deal of opportunity for organisations to make great progress in the wellbeing and productivity of their workforces and their bottom line by taking structured, systematic approaches to building mental health – as opposed to supporting mental illness.”

Kelly also said it was important that organisations look at how resilience be employed as a preventative approach to building mental health in the workplace.

“If you define resilience as the ability to bounce back from trouble, that’s one important human capacity.

“We all have trouble from time to time and workplaces generate challenge for people, so you can reasonably expect that workplaces need resilient people.”

Kelly referred to Professor Martin Seligman, whose research and evidence suggest wellbeing increases as a result of building positive emotions, engagement with life, relationships, physical meaning and accomplishment (or PERMA).

“So if you’re thinking of prevention, then you preventatively build your levels of wellbeing and you preventatively build your levels of resilience – just as you preventatively build your physical fitness if you want to protect yourself into the future,” she said.

“The evidence is also clear that if you do build those qualities and capacities, there are many other benefits not only to mental health, but also in physical health and productivity.

“That, of course, makes this very important to workplace management,” she said.