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  • James Judge

Mental health matters: where’s our head at with workplace wellbeing?

Is it acceptable to raise mental health issues in the workplace, or is it still largely seen as a career-limiting move? How much can or should organisations do to promote mental health and wellbeing at work? James Judge examines these questions in a recent article, originally published in the Mandarin.

This month is designated Mental Health Month by NSW organisation Way Ahead. This coincides with World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October, a date set by the World Health Organisation to raise awareness of mental health issues and promote more positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes.

The last survey by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) on national stress and wellbeing in Australia showed we were faring worse than in 2011 when the survey began, with respondents reporting lower levels of wellbeing (and workplace wellbeing) and higher levels of stress, depression and anxiety.

In my father’s day, discussions of any issues relating to mental health were definitely not to be conducted in public (or in private for that matter). I remember him once joking to me that “anyone who saw a psychiatrist needed to get his head read”. Fortunately, there has been a shift in public attitudes over the past few decades. Many organisations, such as beyond blue, the Black Dog Institute and SANE Australia, have worked to normalise the acceptability of discussions around mental health in society, and initiatives like those championed by RUOK are also worthy of mention.

The courageous stories of the many individual leaders, politicians and sports stars that have spoken publicly about their mental health struggles as a way to lessen the stigma associated with the topic are also on the rise. It was hard to miss James Hirdhanding out the Norm Smith medal on the weekend. It was only six months ago that he revealed his five-week stay in a mental health facility after his battle with depression and an overdose of sleeping pills. Despite this, the question remains as to whether we have yet reached the point where it is acceptable to raise mental health issues in the workplace, or is it still largely seen as a career-limiting move? That is certainly the message from many I have spoken to who work in defence, emergency services or law enforcement. A related question is: how much organisations can or should do to take a more proactive role in promoting mental health and wellbeing at work?

What is wellbeing?

While there is no single determinate of wellbeing, there is general consensus that at minimum, wellbeing includes the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative moods, satisfaction with life and positive functioning. Studies cited by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention show that wellbeing is associated with numerous benefits including decreased risk of illness and injury, better immune functioning, speedier recovery from disease and increased longevity.

In the management and leadership literature, employee wellness is increasingly seen as being part of the business of management. Once limited to a sole focus on physical health, there is a growing understanding that addressing thorny issues like performance and absenteeism (perennial issues for many human resource professionals in the public sector) can’t happen unless a more holistic approach is taken. Positive organisational goals, like improving productivity and maximising employee engagement also invite more sophisticated approaches. Research by organisations like Gallup has also shown the correlation between the health and wellbeing of employees, and their engagement at work.

It should be no surprise that happy and healthy employees will, on balance, perform better than unhappy and sick ones, but how is wellbeing best promoted?

Fitbits and flow classes

Offering discounted gym membership and yoga classes to employees may be attractive options for employers wanting to promote workplace wellbeing but some are sceptical of such measures. More mindfulness meditation certainly won’t fix intrinsic problems — such as a lack of effective training or resourcing — faced by some in public sector middle management. Helpful advice for creating both effective and sustainable workplace health and wellbeing programs is offered by Comcare, which recommends individual programs be targeted to a specific organisation’s risks and needs while also ensuring they are:

  • adequately resourced and supported

  • monitored and evaluated, and

  • continuously improved.

Most public sector agencies also offer some form of free, confidential, employee assistance program (EAP) which allows employees to see a counsellor for a set number of sessions per year (generally three to six) when they are experiencing difficulties at work or in their home life. This is a service that is also often extended to family members of employees, but it’s generally something that is only accessed once someone has acknowledged they are struggling or experience a crisis.


An article in August’s HRM Magazine highlighted some of the issues with measuring the effectiveness of EAP programs, notably that organisations evaluate proposals from EAP providers based on internal criteria rather than external benchmarks. The performance of any given provider is also opaque with no formal mechanisms in place to actually evaluate the effectiveness of these services.

Offering EAP can also sometimes be seen as a ‘tick a box’ exercise, not taken seriously by staff and used by managers with low emotional intelligence to palm off difficult workplace discussions.

For those seeking to be more proactive in addressing or improving workplace wellbeing, it’s worth remembering that good health, happiness and engagement are actually a byproduct of something else. Psychologists refer to that something else as the positive behavioural adaptation — resilience.  If you want to want to improve levels of wellbeing, building resilient leaders and teams is the ‘how’.


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