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R U Ok? Managing a Mentally Healthy Workplace
R U OK? Day is a day dedicated to reminding people to ask family, friends, colleagues or even strangers the question “R U OK?” as a way of connecting on a meaningful level in order to reach out to anyone who may be struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide.
While R U OK? Day is one day of the year, the sentiment behind R U OK? Day applies all year round and what better place to reach out to people than in the workplace. Importantly, employers have the ability to create a culture where people feel confident asking and answering the question “R U OK?”
Prevalence in the Workplace
Mental illness is the third most prevalent injury/illness in Australia with 16% of employees experiencing mild levels of depression and a further 5.5% experiencing symptoms of clinical depression (moderate to severe). What is most concerning is that 91% of employees believe that mental health in the workplace is important, but despite this, only 52% of employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy. 
Recognising Mental Health Conditions at Work
The first step in facilitating support to those experiencing mental health conditions is to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Being informed about symptoms, or early warning signs, can lead to intervention that can help prevent mental illness or reduce the severity of mental illness.
- physical symptoms including appearing tired, headaches, weight loss or gain, less attention to personal grooming;
- increased absence from work;
- erratic behaviour;
- emotional responses;
- increased workplace conflict;
- low morale;
- deteriorating work performance; and
- withdrawal behaviour.
Managing a Mentally Healthy Workplace
During recruitment, it is important to note that prospective employees should not be required to answer questions about a mental health condition except in limited circumstances where it will affect their ability to carry out the inherent requirements of the position or it will affect their health and safety and/or the health and safety of others. Employers who ask questions outside these limitations may expose themselves to a discrimination claim.
A prospective employer should limit questions of a job applicant to general questions about whether they are aware of any medical condition, symptom or other limitation that would prevent or inhibit them from performing the inherent requirements of the role and if a condition is disclosed, what adjustments (if any) are needed for the job applicant to perform the role.
While performance management is a critical tool for employers, it is also an aspect of employee relations which can be mishandled. A good performance management process is an important aspect of managing a mentally healthy workplace. Some tools for providing good performance management are ensuring that the employee has clear expectations around their role, responsibilities and accountability and regular feedback is given and conversations revolve around how employers and employees can work together to achieve goals. Importantly, employers should take into account personal circumstances that may contribute to an employee’s performance issue and whether a mental health condition may be a contributing factor to the performance concern.
Managing Stressors in the Workplace
Employers can walk a fine line between maintaining productivity and creating a stressful workplace for employees. It is therefore an employer’s responsibility to address any concerns raised by employees about work stressors. An employer can help address job stress by:
- providing strong leadership skills;
- creating a hardworking but positive workplace where there is open communication, encouragement and support;
- making sure that employees are involved in decision making and consulted about big decisions such as restructures;
- reinforcing peer working relationships to help share workload and create a strong team bond; and
- having effective training on managing and addressing job stress at employee level.
Most importantly, employers should endeavor to help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. Encouraging employees to take breaks and leave helps prevent burn out and boosts employee morale.
Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace
While it is impossible to prevent mental illness occurring in the workplace, employers have a significant role in helping reduce the harms associated with mental health and avoiding exacerbating any existing mental health conditions. While building a mentally healthy workplace cannot be facilitated overnight, simply asking R U OK? can be the first step in opening the communication lines and giving someone a much needed listening ear.
Other relevant resources
16 August 2018