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How to Manage Mental Health in Your Workplace.

Published October 10, 2017 (last updated November 18, 2020) -

One in six New Zealanders will experience a mental illness at some time in their lives. It is often presumed an employee’s mental illness develops outside of the workplace. However, considering that 60% of employees’ waking hours are spent at work, it is important to know the best way to handle mental health within your workplace. Employees in every industry will be affected directly or indirectly by a mental health issue at some point in their working life.

The way employees think, feel, and behave can impact everything from productivity and communication to their ability to maintain safety in the workplace. An unhealthy work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress and exacerbate, or contribute to, the development of mental illness. If employees are feeling isolated or hopeless it can contribute to depression and other mental illnesses.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can also cost employers a lot of money. In fact, the Center for Prevention and Health Services estimates that mental illness and substance abuse issues cost employers between $79 and $105 billion annually in indirect costs. Absenteeism, decreased productivity, and increased healthcare expenses are just a few of the ways mental health problems cost employers money. Mental illness causes more days of work lost and work impairment than many other chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis.

Research indicates that job stress and other work-related psychosocial hazards are emerging as the leading contributors to the burden of occupational disease and injury. The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 requires employers to adopt a systematic approach to identifying hazards, assessing which are the significant hazards, and controlling these hazards through eliminating, isolating, and/or minimising the hazards. The Act makes specific reference to stress as a cause of harm.

What can employers do?

Communicating with a staff member who has experience of mental illness is not difficult. It requires principles of good management, including: talking to them openly and honestly and having a good overview of what support and assistance you or your company can provide.

Create a healthy environment.

Many healthcare professionals will advocate that the physical surroundings an environment plays a large role in shaping mental health. It is important for employers to evaluate the lifestyle they promote among employees. Expecting employees to work 80 hours a week or insisting people respond to work-related email from home are just a few of the things that can interfere with an employee’s ability to build a natural buffer against workplace stress.

A few simple ways to foster a healthy environment include encouraging exercise, allowing for breaks where employees can socialise, and offering stress reduction workshops. Hiring a mental health professional to teach mindfulness or offering free access to a yoga class are just a few creative ways to bolster mental strength and develop resilience to mental health problems.

Leave options for workplace stress.

Workplace stress may be an illness. An employee with workplace stress that amounts to an illness may take sick leave. In this case, the ordinary conditions for sick leave apply.

In addition to sick leave, it might be possible for the employer and the employee to negotiate further leave for stress. As this is not a legal entitlement, it is up to the employer whether or not further leave is provided. This can help to make sure the employee is both healthy and productive. The length of the leave and whether the leave is paid or unpaid will have to be negotiated.

Implement a mental health policy and procedure.

A dedicated, documented ‘mental health return to work policy and procedures manual’ comes into its role – a document lacking in many workplaces. Key aspects of this document could include:

  • an organisational commitment to early return to work, adjusting the role to assist the worker in returning at least part time rather than prolonging sick leave to play it safe
  • an outline of how supervisors should seek advice when an employee discloses a mental health issue, including what actions they should take, when they should take them and what will be supported by an organisation
  • procedures for keeping contact with staff on sick leave, including when and how employees should notify absence and what is expected from the employee while on sick leave. the employee feels valued and maintains connection while the employer is aware of the reasons for absence
  • clarify the expectations, roles and responsibilities of all parties involved in the return-to-work process, including employee, doctors, insurer, employer and so on
  • clarify which reasonable adjustments can be made to retain an employee, including time off to attend appointments
  • define responsibilities for putting a return-to-work plan into action and reviewing its progress, including arrangements for return-to-work interviews
  • rehabilitation plan to allow for a staged return to work

Support employees in addressing mental health issues.

Supporting emotional wellness and treatment can ensure that employees are able to perform at their best. Designed to promote productivity, employee assistance programs (EAP) are focused on delivering barrier-free access for mental health support. By eliminating eligibility requirements and the counselling sessions offered at no cost to the employee, members can access services without cost concerns.

In general, EAPs provide assessment and services for addressing a range of personal problems and concerns that interfere with employees’ well-being and work performance.  EAP professionals may also provide training and/or consultation to managers and supervisors on organisational concerns.

We all benefit from good support when dealing with what life brings – whether physical or mental illness, change, stress, or grief. The principle that investing in support for employees who may be struggling is not just morally correct but presents financial value expected from a happier workforce.

Employsure is a workplace relations specialist, who can answer any questions you may have regarding your employment obligations and supporting your employee’s well-being and performance. Contact Employsure today on 0800 675 700 to speak to a specialist about implementing a tailored solution for your workplace.

About Employsure

Employsure is one of New Zealand’s largest workplace relations advisers to small and medium businesses, with over 5,500 clients. We take the complexity out of workplace legislation to help small business employers protect their business and their people.

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