Workplace Mental Health – Moving from Awareness to Intervention and Prevention

We were delighted to welcome Dr Chris Stevens, Principal Psychologist at CommuniCorp Group, Workplace Psychology Specialists, to lead a fascinating business breakfast on what HR Professionals need to know and do in order to promote a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

The small group of HR Professionals from a range of companies including Optus, AMP, News, Allens and Kimberley Clark were given clear guidelines and a comprehensive framework for action. Chris summarised why this topic matters – including the human and financial costs, legislative obligations and risks, the impact mental illness has in the workplace and responsibilities to identify and manage psychosocial risk. The presentation also outlined the significant organisational benefits of a psychologically healthy workplace including increased productivity, less absenteeism and presenteeism and less distraction, staff turnover and costs due to psychological injury.

A key point is that both individual and organisational psychological health operates on a continuum from ‘unhealthy’ to ‘flourishing’. So interventions must not be only in response to severe psychological injury, but must take a proactive approach to psychosocial factors that impact on wellbeing, productivity relationships in workplaces and psychological health. This proactive approach is aimed to provide bottom line productivity and cultural benefits as well as buffering individuals against psychological harm.

Read on for a detailed summary of the event

WORKPLACE MENTAL HEALTH – WHAT AND WHY?

Under Australian Work Health and Safety (WHS) and Occupational Health and Safety

(OH&S) statutory law and common law, employers must provide safe workplaces. This includes taking practical steps to identify, assess and control reasonably foreseeable psychological risks to provide a psychologically safe and healthy workplace (PS&HW).

Beyond compliance with WHS obligations that promote a Psychologically Safe Workplace (PSW), organisations that work to create a Psychologically Healthy Workplace (PHW) realise considerable performance productivity, reputation, employee engagement and retention benefits.  This involves moving beyond awareness-raising about mental health, towards practical interventions and preventative strategies integrated with larger organisational factors and priorities. 

With the rising rate and cost of workplace psychological injury, it has never been more important to not only identify and address psychosocial hazards in the workplace, but more importantly to build individual and organisational capability to develop early intervention and prevention systems, strategies and people capabilities. With Mental Health related issues at work emerging as a critical safety and financial risk for Australian business, costing over $14.8 billion a year, Australian businesses need to ensure they have strategies in place to develop psychologically safe and health workplaces.

There are a range of common approaches to this challenge which are, frankly, insufficient to address workplace psychological health matters. These include: relying solely on EAP and other tertiary approaches; utilising primarily community, diagnosis or ‘lived experience’ based awareness-raising initiatives; targeting efforts on just one landmark day or week a year; and/or providing the occasional mindfulness or stress management session.  In reality, a much more considered, strategic, evidence-based and workplace specific approach is required – with an emphasis on early intervention and prevention and the workplace systems and environment that influences psychological wellbeing.

In a recent interview with Human Capital Online CommuniCorp Group’s Managing Director & Principal Psychologist David Burroughs commented: “Most People can recognise when others are experiencing some degree of psychological distress.  People can see when others are emotionally suffering, but are often reluctant to intervene and have a helping conversation. By giving general staff the knowledge, confidence and skills to recognise distress in an individual, initiate a conversation and know where to refer to internally or externally for additional support – that’s a big thing all on its own. It’s one of what we call a ‘psychological safety foundation skill’, something that we think all organisations should have.”  He went on to emphasise: “The time for raising awareness is over; it is now time for organisations to proactively and sustainably address workplace psychological health and safety.” 

THE BENEFITS

Research and practice demonstrates that when employees are psychologically healthy (i.e. they experience job satisfaction, are engaged in their work, or have higher well-being), an array of business performance outcomes such as customer loyalty, profitability, productivity, and general safety are elevated.  A climate of psychological safety is positively associated with multiple increasing returns on assets and organisational goal achievement over time.  The benefits of promoting a PS&HW are not transient as they are embedded at all levels of the organisation.

At a team level, performance is improved through:      

➢               More effective and innovative problem solving and constructive discussion,

➢               Increased rigour  in  decision-making  as  individuals  are  more  comfortable challenging each other and leaders; &

➢               Increased contributions from team members overall as they are confident in expressing creative and unconventional ideas.(i)

At an individual level, employees report:

➢               Higher perceptions of work as rewarding;

➢               Increased work engagement; Enhanced productivity &

➢               Higher overall psychological health.(ii) 

Strong organisational health measures make it 2.2 times more likely for that organisation to deliver above average performance with comparable organisations, in terms of profitability, margins, growth etc. (APSC & Comcare, 2013).

A PWC and Beyond Blue report (2014) indicates that there is an average return of $2.30 for every dollar spent  on effective workplace mental health strategies (largely in terms of increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism and workers compensation claims)

WHERE TO START

Raising mental health awareness is easy and talking about diagnosis is interesting for people, however such approaches, while inexpensive and well-intended, are largely ineffective as they fail to address the critical workplace factors essential to support workplace mental health.  Organisations are better placed to adopt an integrated and systemic approach to guide their implementation – based on what their unique organisational requirements. CommuniCorp has developed a methodology to help organisations navigate the complex field of psychological health in the workplace. The Psychologically Safe and Healthy Workplaces (PS&HW) framework helps simplify the key organisational action points, systems and capabilities required to not only help organisations comply with the WHS obligations around Psychological Health and Safety, but to also realise the productivity, reputation, employee engagement, and retention benefits of a psychologically thriving workplace. It focuses on what to do and how to do it – from identifying psychosocial hazards and intervention priorities, to the measurement and evaluation of program effectiveness. 

The model is based on 5 simultaneous guiding principles of operation: 

1.  Executive Commitment: Relates to genuine and visible support (and resourcing) for creating a PS&HW to embed and create longevity for these new practices;

2.  Policies  &  Practices:  Relates  to  the  assessment  and refinement of  existing  psychological health policies, systems and practices that support psychological health;

3.  Initial & Ongoing Planning & Prioritising: Involves the identification and assessment of  psychosocial  hazards, role specific psychological health capabilities, and baselines metrics to determine priority intervention areas and enable ongoing assessment of program effectiveness;

4.  Actions,  Strategies  &  Skills: Consists  of  the  implementation  of key PS&HW initiatives at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of intervention – based on the psychosocial profile and priorities identified in the planning/prioritising stage;

5.  Ongoing Review & Refinement: Relates to the ongoing evaluation of program outcomes, linked to the baseline metrics determined earlier, as well as the ongoing refinement/reinforcement of workplace psychological health systems and activities to ensure they meet the current and emerging needs of the organisation. 

CCG PS&HW Framwork Graphic_FINAL

 

CommuniCorp’s Psychologically Safe and Healthy Workplaces (PS&HW) approach focuses not only on the key psychological safety factors that are part of organisational legal and compliance responsibilities, but builds on these as foundations to implement policies, practices, systems and initiatives that maximise the potential for positive psychological health.

It enables individuals, teams and organisations to flourish and move up the PS&HW continuum (see below).

 

A key consideration in this is that the workplace interventions are not just about awareness of mental health diagnoses, (in fact ‘amateur psychologist’ and ‘medicalised’  approaches can actually do more harm than good) but focused on actual workplace requirements.   It is much more about organisational health and safety and developing the systems, processes and workplace capabilities that will allow the organisation to flourish (see Psychologically Safe & Healthy Workplace Continuum below).

 

Processes & Capabilities

In order to do this, organisations need to address psychosocial factors at the individual, role and organisational levels as they apply specifically to their organisation; as well as at the primary, secondary and tertiary stages of intervention.  In other words, to implement a sustainable PS&HW initiative it must be integrated, as mental health is complex and dynamic.  Psychosocial risk factors extend beyond  just  mental  health  disorders,  and  simply  being  aware  does not improve  an individual’s capability in effectively addressing the psychological issue nor does it bring about constructive change in the organisational factors that influence wellbeing.  It is critical that PS&HW initiatives are workplace-specific, address the psychosocial realities relevant to the individual workplace, and that they address the policies, practices, procedures as well as people capabilities.

Community based and/or diagnosis based initiatives that do not cover the practicalities of mental health from a workplace perspective, such as issues around management of performance, disability discrimination, WHS/OH&S obligations, RTW/IM, internal support systems and procedures, will not adequately equip or provide workplaces with the necessary capabilities and practices to realise a PS&HW.  No two workplaces are the same, different roles have different psychological job demands, and all staff, irrespective of role or seniority have a role to play in the support and management of psychological health in the workplace. The more an organisation understands and addresses the factors that influence mental health in their own organisation, and the greater the focus on early intervention and prevention, the greater the impact will be for everyone.

The table below indicates what we consider to be the necessary and sufficient areas of knowledge and/or capabilities relative to the various levels of staff with any organisation in order to promote a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

NECESSARY & SUFFICIENT KNOWLEDGE/CAPABILITIES FOR A PS&HW

Necessary-Sufficient Knowledge-Capabilities

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