In the height of the festive season, which we have just come through, we are often busy with celebrations, family and other activities, and then suddenly the New Year is upon us. With any luck, you’ve had a chance to rejuvenate and take stock, otherwise the year ahead can seem overwhelming. For Managers, Supervisors, Business Owners and other key staff who support workers, now is a good time to start considering your Staff Well-being Plan for the year. Mental Health First Aid Australia has developed a handy checklist to get you started. The checklist is available towards the end of this article.
It goes without saying that 2020 was a challenging year; it started with a bushfire and culminated in a global pandemic, unemployment and economic downturn. While we look forward with renewed hope and anticipation for a better year ahead, it pays to be realistic about the different norms and requirements that will impact us at home, work and socially. With the pandemic far from over and incremental shifts towards a ‘new normal’, maintaining mentally healthy workplaces will require some attention and flexibility.
At the time of writing this article, there are still major variations from state-to-state and workplace-to-workplace, in how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled. Different restrictions and practices exist across the country and virus hot spots continue to make life unpredictable. This can make managing staff and workplace functions a challenge – particularly where operations and locations are dispersed geographically.
While we all continue to do our part to keep our families, colleagues and communities safe and healthy, there will be differences in how we undertake our jobs. As the situation changes, many workers will be returning to work or again changing their work environments. For some, working from home or an alternate location may continue. Regardless of the location or set up, there will be well-being challenges that employers and employees alike will need to face and mitigate in order to remain happy, healthy and productive.
Why is mental health in the workplace so important at this time?
The quest for well-being at work began evolving from as far back as 1856, when protests about the work conditions of manual labourers drew attention to long hours and personal safety risks. Fast forward to 2020 and the recent Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health that drew an undeniable link between mental health problems and workplace culture and productivity. It suggests that mental illness now has an approximate $12.2 to $39.1 billion per annum cost to the economy through reduced productivity and participation, with around 2.8 million working Australians having a mental illness. This can impact on workplace participation, absenteeism, presenteeism, culture and personal safety. It has flow-on effects for broader communities.
Now, with the challenges of COVID-19 and other social and economic stressors, there is early modelling to suggest that mental health problems and suicide risk is on the rise from already worrying rates. In Australia, suicide remains a leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-44 (ABS, 2020), and 1 in 5 Australians in any given year will experience a mental illness. For many, the events of 2020 have had an exacerbating and causal influence on issues such as depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, financial distress, substance abuse or misuse, and suicidal ideation. Workplaces remain a vital piece in prevention and intervention.
There are several unique impacts of COVID-19 and changing work arrangements on mental health that should be considered in 2021.
Returning to on-site work – minimising stress
Workplaces bringing staff back into the office need to be mindful that this may be a big adjustment. Some staff may have fears, reservations or anxieties about this return. Others may struggle with the added pressures of re-arranging childcare, commuting and other logistics that they didn’t need to consider from their home offices. Additionally, bringing groups of people back together can inevitably present new conflicts or communication challenges amongst colleagues, as they re-establish connections and working relationships.
It is important that employers are aware that this is not straightforward for all staff, and that there may be family implications and mental health challenges. It is important to remain open to hearing about these challenges from staff, and to finding ways to work around them – providing support, time to adjust and flexible options if possible.
Flexible work arrangements – addressing hidden mental health problems
Some organisations have realised the benefits of more flexible work arrangements for staff during the pandemic. This may include provisions for working from home, reduced hours in the office or more flexible work hours in general. For workplaces who continue to have staff working from a variety of locations, the primary challenge for maintaining workplace mental health becomes the oversight of staff well-being. Without consistent face-to-face contact, and without seeing the environment a person is working in, it can be difficult to determine safety or identify problems.
For staff working from home, there is the potential for exposure to other competing stressors, such as family and home duties. Some staff thrive in a home environment, and there is evidence to suggest that flexible work arrangements can increase output, lead to better work-life balance and in turn improve happiness and well-being. Other staff prefer the structure of an in-office environment, or need the social and professional interaction to do well both professionally and emotionally.
Having a means for checking in with staff, not just on matters of operations and output, but also in terms of happiness and health is important. Workplaces must continue to play a role in supporting well-being, even when it is done remotely. Providing avenues for help-seeking or escalation of concerns is important and should be part of your formal well-being framework.
Maintaining positive workplace culture
Workplace culture is vital to the well-being, safety, happiness and productivity of employees. This can be increasingly challenging during times of collective distress and uncertainty, and when staff are dispersed across different locations and working arrangements. Now is the time to consider ways in which you can bolster support networks, positive communication and morale boosting activities, in order to support the health and well-being of staff and increase their engagement.
Work-life balance continues to be important whether staff work from home or not. Encouraging staff to have healthy work hours, and to pursue family, personal and social activities is important.
Human connection and a sense of belonging are important elements in the pursuit of positive mental health. With social distancing, and periods of isolation, this has been a major challenge that has impacted some people more than others. Considering ways in which to connect staff and make them feel valued within your organisation, in a genuine and meaningful way can help.
Engaging in Mental Health First Aid Programs
Mental Health First Aid training is an excellent and proactive mental health tool for the workplace. By skilling staff to recognise the signs that a colleague or workplace stakeholder may be struggling, and giving them the confidence and skills to respond, you will be building protective factors into your workplace. This can be life changing or even lifesaving, and also contribute to your overall workplace culture and productivity.
Some workplaces go one step further, by encouraging certain staff to train as MHFA Instructors. This is a cost efficient and highly productive way to upskill staff and ensure that Mental Health First Aid remains a top priority in your overall Workplace Health and Safety or Well-being strategy.
Find out more about MHFA training options for your workplace: https://workplace.mhfa.com.au
- More information about working from home effectively during COVID-19 can be found here: https://www.mhfa.com.au/how-to-have-a-conversation-about-maintaining-positive-mental-health/
- Tips for providing mental health first aid during social distancing can be found here: https://www.mhfa.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Providing-MHFA-in-the-time-of-Social-Distancing_Apr2020-1.pdf
DOWNLOAD OUR CHECKLIST
Download our checklist to help you start preparing to make your workplace mentally healthy in 2021.
CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION
Nearly one million Australians have now been trained in Mental Health First Aid. As we look to celebrate that milestone we continue to call on individuals all over the country to learn the skills and continue the conversation that could change a life.
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