Tangible advice on successfully dealing with workplace mental health

We spoke to Dr Chris Stevens, Director and Principal Psychologist at CommuniCorp Group to get some tangible advice on how to develop strategies that prevent and support workplace mental health issues.

A corporate psychology expert with over 20 years’ experience facilitating groups and training programs in a wide variety of international organisations, Dr Chris is a world leading authority on workplace mental health and leads a team of over 50 psychologists 

Discussions around mental health seem to be becoming less taboo these days. What differences have you noticed in the past few years around attitudes towards mental health, particularly in the corporate world?

The main difference is that mental health is now broadly recognised as a significant workplace safety issue. With the beefing up of legislative requirements on workplaces and the specific requirement to provide psychologically safe and healthy workplaces, organisations are now much more aware of the issue and are mostly taking some sort of action. So there is much more awareness but the equality of responses are quite mixed. Most organisations still want a one-size-fits-all remedy, usually in the shape of providing an EAP or running mental health first aid approaches, which of course are OK in themselves, but hardly address the issue of prevention.

Whilst days like RU OK? Day are obviously important, what else can organisations be doing on a more regular basis to tackle mental health, not just putting a pin it the subject once a year?

This a critical issue. The main thing is to take a tailored, psychosocial approach, addressing the specific context, culture and circumstances of the organisation. These ‘flagpole’ days are good, but they are not a solution for a more complex reality. The way that work is organised; how people are managed and led; everyday work procedures; how people are chosen for roles and supported in those roles – these and many other factors that affect the psychosocial ‘space’ in which people work are the key things to assess and design bespoke interventions around. Too often organisations try to simply ‘outsource’ the solution (EAP; guest speakers; Flagpole days). What they should be doing is building in-house capabilities, especially in their leadership and management cohorts.     

Having been an expert in this field for some time, what are the barriers that seem to hold some businesses back from taking action?

I think the main problem is a lack of in-depth understanding. What stops effective action is a perception that workplace mental health is somehow separate to culture and organisational business strategy. It is often seen only as a ‘cost’ or as an ‘individual issue’. Ironically such an approach tends to waste money on good intentions, having simply provided mental health first aid or run RUOK day, but not assessing or addressing the actual psychosocial causes of issues in the workplace.

If you had 3 tips for an HR Director or CEO looking to create an early intervention and prevention strategy for workplace mental health, what would those be?

1. Assess the psychosocial factors in your organisation and design a bespoke program that is evidence-based and focused on your issues

2. Make sure this tailored program: identifies and addresses:

  • Tertiary incidents (serious issues that have already arisen);
  • Secondary Risk factors (early identification and amelioration);
  • Primary levels (prevention via proactive and strategic engagement).

3. Build a Psychologically Safe and Healthy Workplace. This needs to be an important part of strategic planning; have appropriate budget; and focus on building real-world people capabilities relative to people’s seniority and responsibilities in the organisation.

Are there any organisations doing this really well already? Or countries with better practices in place to address mental health?

Yes, we have working with several large corporate and Government bodies who have taken a strategic and systemic approach. This has been based on an initial psychosocial risk assessment, from which they designed a coherent and commercially robust program. This is a sophisticated approach that recognises medium to long term return on investment via culture, reduced cost and so on.

Actually, two countries appear to be leading the way in this: Australia and Canada. The latter has led the way theoretically and academically, while Australia has led the way practically. I think we can be very proud of this. What distinguishes these successful approaches is the emphasis on prevention, rather than the provision of safety nets.

What research is there to demonstrate just how much of an impact a healthier workplace can have on an organisation’s profits?

There are two pieces of research that come to mind:

Firstly Price Waterhouse Cooper’s recent research (Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace: Return on investment analysis) showing a 2.3 ROI on workplace mental health interventions.

The other is the WORC project in Queensland University which demonstrates early intervention programs results in a five-fold return on investment, due to increased employee productivity.(i)

In this field, there is no such thing as zero harm, so we always need a Tertiary response capability. Organisations at a minimum should have an Employee Assistance Program or EAP (that provides employees with a free service when needed), or at least a network of trusted treating practitioners that can call upon. The GPs provide access to psychologists and allied health practitioners though the provision of mental health plans (10 heavily subsidised sessions per year). There is also a plethora of online and telephone help lines and resources (that are increasingly evidence-based and practical), usually providing self-guided exercises and strategies as well as links and contacts numbers for further help. Ideally of course, employees should feel safe to talk to their managers and/or HR – who would be educated and skilled in provided assistance and support in the workplace and in navigating these support options.

References cited:

[i] Australian Public Service Commission: Comcare. (2014). As One Working Together: Promoting Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work. Australian Government, p. 4.

For more information on Workplace Mental Health issues, check out www.communicorpgroup.com

Dr Chris Stevens on LinkedIn