How managers can support mental health in the workplace

With a staggering one in six Australians experiencing a mental health condition, fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for employees has never been more important.

Managers have a vital role to play in supporting their teams by setting the right example when it comes to openly discussing mental health and creating an open and flexible work environment.

We spoke to Patrice O’Brien, Beyond Blue’s General Manager Workplace, Partnerships and Engagement about how managers can best support the mental health of their teams.

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

“A mentally healthy workplace isn't just about supporting someone who becomes unwell,” O’Brien says. “It's about doing as much as the workplace can to have protective factors so that people are less likely to become unwell.”

Businesses can foster a mentally healthy workplace by providing:

  • A strong culture where employees feel engaged and enjoy coming to work
  • An open culture where employees can talk openly about things that might be happening in their lives, without fear of stigma or discrimination
  • Support for employees during busy, highly demanding periods of business 
  • Compassionate support for employees who do become unwell, such as reasonable adjustments to help them stay at work 

A mentally healthy workplace doesn’t mean staff can just do whatever they like, O’Brien says.

“It's about giving really clear guidance around what their role is and what they're being asked to do, and then giving them the support and resources they need to do it.”

Why is mental health in the workplace important?

“Right now in Australia approximately three million people are living with depression and anxiety,” O’Brien says. “And in Australia every single day an average of eight people take their own lives. It's more than double the road toll.

“Imagine if we could have workplaces across the country where mental health was talked about openly? We could make a real change to that figure.”

Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that for every dollar invested in workplace mental health initiatives, there is an average return on investment of $2.30.  For some industries it's a lot higher, O’Brien says.

“A mentally healthy workplace is one where you're likely to have more engaged employees, you're more likely to attract and retain good staff, and you've got a really good culture and high morale and high engagement.”

There is a groundswell of candidates looking for workplaces that foster good mental health, O’Brien says.

“From the point of wanting to be able to attract and retain great staff in this really competitive market, it's a really big driver.”

How can managers support the mental health of their team?

“Workplaces have a real role to play in managing some of the challenges around workplace mental health issues,” O’Brien says.

For example, if you know a busy period is coming up, think about what you can do to minimise those risk factors and support staff through those periods.

“People will actually give more when they know they're supported.”

If an employee is unwell, consider what you can do to support them.

“What kind of reasonable adjustments to help them to stay at or return to work?”, O’Brien suggests.

It could be something as simple as allowing them to work from home one day a week, or time off for appointments.

“As a manager, I've found that if you give someone that flexibility when they need it, the loyalty and the discretionary effort that comes back tenfold is phenomenal,” O’Brien says.

What signs should managers be aware of?

Mental health issues can often appear in employees as:

  • Poor productivity
  • Forgetfulness
  • Grumpiness
  • Being withdrawn

If an employee shows these signs, managers may automatically launch into a performance review process “which isn't much fun for anyone,” O’Brien says.

Instead, approach the employee with concern and ask how things are going for them. 

How can managers set an example of good mental health habits?

Managers play a key role in fostering a culture that is open about mental health issues.

“It's a tough gig being a middle manager,” says O’Brien.

“But if you're a middle manager there are things you can do within your own small team that can make a really big difference. The first of them is to be as open and as vulnerable a leader as you can be.

“If your staff can see that when you're struggling with something you're able to talk to them about it openly, it sends them a very clear sign that it's okay for them to show vulnerability as well. That is a really powerful thing that leaders can do.”

A great litmus test of a mentally healthy workplace is if employees feel that they can come forward and talk to their manager about their mental health, O’Brien says.

Where can business go for support?

Beyond Blue’s Heads Up website is specifically for businesses, managers and employees to help them foster a mentally healthy culture.

There is a section devoted to resources for managers who want to support their staff, and for business leaders who want to make changes across their whole business.

Want to learn more about mental health in the workplace? Join Employment Hero's Chief People Officer, Alex Hattingh, to talk about how to create a mentally healthy workplace and create a happy, high performance team. Join the webinar.