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Managing stress and mental illness in the workplace

For managers, the challenge is in trying to motivate and engage stressed staff. Image from shutterstock.com

Managing stress and mental illness in the workplace

For managers, the challenge is in trying to motivate and engage stressed staff. Image from shutterstock.com

Common mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety disorders, are the second leading cause of disability in Australia and affect around 20% of the working age population at any one moment.

The cost of work-related mental health problems on workplaces is enormous. A recent VicHealth-funded study reported that job strain-attributable depression costs the Australian economy A$730 million per year, with much of the cost worn by employers.

In my role as both a workplace mental health researcher and organisational psychologist – both of which involve me working closely with employers, employees and other workplace stakeholders – I see this challenge from a variety of perspectives.

In my view, an important part of the solution is to better equip bosses to manage people, regardless of whether a mental health disorder is involved.

The pressures of work

For employees, the main struggles relate to coping with poor managerial and workplace practices, excessive workloads, little control over their work, demands to do more with less, and interpersonal conflict. These stressors, alone, or in combination, are associated with (and can cause) mental illness or worsen an existing mental health condition.

The result can include reduced performance, incidental sick leave or “mental health days” or, on the more severe end, extended time off work, workers compensation claims and permanent disability. It has been estimated that, per worker, around 3.2 work days a year are lost to workplace stress. Three to four days are lost per month for each person experiencing depression.

For managers, the challenge is in trying to motivate and engage stressed staff, to manage poor performance with little or no support, or to manage their people when they are overloaded and stressed themselves.

A suspected mental health problem should not prevent a manager from engaging in performance discussions with staff. Image from shutterstock.com

This also plays out at the organisational level. Many employers are crippled by sickness absence, low productivity or expensive psychological injury claims.

While not the most prevalent, mental stress claims are generally the most costly due to more time off work and the difficulty in getting injured workers back to work. The financial and operational impact is particularly pronounced for small businesses where every worker is needed to keep a business afloat.

Getting the right skills

Researchers have identified what causes workplace mental health issues but we’re still learning how to address them. Interestingly, the science is best informed by practice as opposed to the reverse.

Solving the issue involves collaboration on a number of fronts: between researchers and practitioners; workers and workplaces; unions and policymakers and a genuine desire to listen and to learn what works from a variety of perspectives.

Our current efforts involve supporting workplaces to better equip their managers to manage people, regardless of whether a mental health disorder is involved.

One key strategy is to recruit and promote managers on soft, as well as technical, expertise. Too often employers dismiss psychometric assessment, the gold standard test for softer skills (“too expensive”) or gloss over red flags in order to fill roles. The reality of recruitment is difficult – particularly for hard-to-fill roles – but securing managerial “fit” saves expense and can prevent performance issues and work-related mental health problems long term.

We also need to develop middle managers. While it won’t solve everything, supporting managers to have better day-to-day conversations with staff can demonstrably improve the quality of working life. This includes having effective performance and career development conversations, clarifying priorities, monitoring workload and giving employees more control over when and how they work. It also means having the difficult conversation when necessary.

Most employees view their organisation’s performance management practices as a waste of time. When done well (a quarterly check-in is ideal), this can provide role clarity, encouragement, motivation and connection for employees and result in better performance.

When done poorly, it can lead to bullying or stress claims, or worsen an existing mental health condition. The latter two are often what scare managers from having difficult conversations with their staff, often resulting in poor team morale and organisational cynicism.

Good management involves clarifying employees’ priorities and monitoring their workloads. Image from shutterstock.com

A suspected mental health problem should not prevent a manager from engaging in performance discussions with staff. While employees do not have to disclose their mental illness to their manager, it is okay for a manager to bring up performance-related issues, as long as this is done sensitively and respectfully. This might involve asking the person whether there are any health or well-being-related circumstances that may be affecting their performance.

If an employee does choose to disclose a mental health problem, managers must make reasonable efforts to accommodate a worker’s illness, as with any disability. This may involve making reasonable adjustments or changes to their job to allow them to perform their job effectively (such as flexible work hours).

All this comes down to the necessity of building supportive and inclusive workplace cultures where workers – no matter their mental health status – can work safely and productively. While it can’t be done overnight, and there are some very real social and economic constraints that need navigating, building healthy working environments is better for all those involved.