Workplaces need to move beyond promoting mental health awareness and start changing the way work is designed to prevent psychological harm. It’s part of their obligations.
Under Workplace Health and Safety regulations, workplaces have a responsibility to provide safe workplaces and systems of work. The definition of “health” in the acts means that these responsibilities include preventing psychological harm. This sort of harm could present in a wide range of symptoms, including, but not limited to, nausea, anxiety, anger, stress, depression, sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts. It could also result in a clinically diagnosed mental disorder.
Work is a great place for promoting health and many workplaces already “normalise” talking about the experience of mental illness, for example, through involvement in RUOK day and beyondblue’s Head’s up initiative. These approaches are similar to other workplace health promotion which has been successful in tackling other health issues over time (eg. for hypertension, diabetes, nutrition, smoking).
However the way to prevent psychological harm is not through awareness days, providing counselling and resilience training, but through work and organisational design. This refers to organising tasks, systems and structures so that people have some level of control and autonomy at work; clarifying roles and responsibilities, and improving supervision and workplace relationships. Some programs to help address these issues have been developed in Australia.
Good work design doesn’t mean a games room, funky relaxation spaces, gyms and juices. In fact some of these techno-park perks have been described as “golden handcuffs” - seemingly great conditions that hide unreasonable work expectations.
Rather, good workplace and work system design is achieved through consultation about how to best complete the task in the allocated time, for example. Paying attention to the physical layout of the work space and considering the increasingly common activity based work approaches is another example.
Importantly, learning and development for senior managers needs to cover skills on supervision and supporting staff and managing psychological risks.
One of the biggest barriers to this sort of change are attitudes towards mental health in the workplace. Often, employers still view mental health as something that people bring with them to work, like their lunch, rather than something that affects, and is affected by, work. These attitudes are regularly on display – for example, in response to the West Australian FIFO inquiry in 2015.
Following multiple suicides in FIFO workers, the inquiry recommended that increased support services and changes to living arrangements be made, among other things. Some responses to the inquiry pointed to statistics regarding demographic groups who may be more likely to develop mental health issues (“It’s them, not our system of work!”). Others championed the idea that FIFO rosters are a choice, and that people should know at the outset how hard FIFO work can be. This is just one example of the tendency to dismiss anything to do with mental health or psychological impacts of work as an individual level problem.
Numerous recent public inquiries, including CSIRO, Worksafe NSW, House of Representatives' bullying inquiry and the FIFO inquiry, have called on organisations to own their contribution to psychological harm that occurs at work.
So workplaces that are planing a mental health awareness day this year should be challenged to go further. By all means raise awareness, support people, and show them where to get further help. But re-design a policy, consult about new supervision practices, challenge a long-held cultural belief, and maybe everyone’s mental health at work will improve just a little.
This story is part of a series on mental illness and the workplace.