Dealing with mental health issues in the workplace

The world of work can be a stressful place and it can be particularly so for small business owners, who often carry a heavy burden of balancing business risk with personal stresses – whether health-related, due to financial stress or everyday family requirements.

As a business owner, it is tempting to think your work-related stress beats everyone else’s hands down, although these risks probably apply to your employees just as much. Business owners should be aware of their responsibilities to encourage the mental well-being of their staff and recognise that a relatively stress-free workplace culture must start at the top of the organisation.

So, what can a business owner do to help?

Know your legal obligations

Knowing your legal obligations is the first step. The need to provide a safe and healthy workplace extends to mental health as well, so making reasonable adjustments for a worker with mental health conditions is important.

Not providing the right support can be taken as discrimination and can be incredibly costly with other far-reaching consequences. I would suggest it makes good business sense, too – to provide a positive working environment which fosters good mental health and productivity in the workforce.

Communicate with your employees

Next, recognise the early warning signs– whether it’s within yourself or your employees, try and spot the signs of stress building early on. The obvious signs are excess sick leave and absenteeism, underperformance or repeated conflict with suppliers or colleagues.  Some less obvious signs may include being easily overwhelmed, being quiet or withdrawn, emotional outbursts and general out-of-character behaviour.

Keeping communication lines open is key here. Performance review meetings should extend beyond a discussion on targets and include a wider discussion about family, health and overall wellbeing on a regular basis rather than as an exception.

Every situation will be different but you should deploy an overarching strategy and coach your team on how to support an employee with mental distress or ill health. This would include discussions about good mental health, sharing credible information and encouraging everyone to get to know individuals better, to create an environment of trust. Within such an environment it becomes easier and more natural to recognise signs of poor mental health and dealing with issues with compassion.

Vary your approach

Recognising that each individual has a different way to manage stress requires a varied approach. Tactics to maintain a positive workplace include:

  1. helping build social networks – building a work environment that is fun for everyone and not just part of the daily grind. Encourage friendships and healthy living. 
  2. helping the community – getting involved with local charities, sporting clubs, themed fundraisers, etc. The act of giving can be a powerful way for business owners and employees to enjoy work and feel closer to their colleagues and community.
  3. support your employees through an Employee Assistance Program to provide confidential support to those who need it.
  4. get help – with the complexity of limited resources within small businesses, it is advisable to get help from an experienced HR professional to guide you on how to create a legally compliant healthy work environment, develop strategies to recognise early warning signs and put in place some measures to address issues in a timely manner.

According to a study conducted by the National Mental Health Commission, the cost of mental ill-health in Australia is over $60 billion per year, an average of $4,000 for every taxpayer. With adequate recognition of everyone’s responsibilities, we can positively contribute to reducing this impact on the larger community, while building long term sustainable businesses.

Meena Silk, The HR Dept Fremantle and Cockburn

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