Maintaining a mentally healthy workplace

Deputy CEO of national charity, SANE Australia, Dr Michelle Blanchard

Mental illness can extract a heavy toll – both human and economic. Serious mental health issues cost Australian businesses a staggering $10.9 billion annually in absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims.  

R U OK logoSince 2009, R U OK? Day has been held each September. It’s a national day of action dedicated to reminding each of us to ask family, friends and colleagues the question, "Are you OK?"

Why? Because connecting regularly and with meaning is one thing everyone can do to support anyone struggling with mental health. The principle behind this day of awareness is ‘a conversation can change a life.’ We don't need to be an expert – just a good friend and a great listener. 

Deputy CEO of national charity, SANE Australia, Dr Michelle Blanchard emphasises how conversations about mental health should not just be restricted to one date in September.  

“The most important thing we can do is ensure that the momentum of R U OK? Day carries on throughout the year,” says Michelle. “Days like this are great for opening up a conversation, but we need to be open to those conversations all year round.” 

To keep that conversation going, there are also other steps you can take – which is crucial given mental health affects one in every two people.  

“One of the best things we can do at work to support each other’s wellbeing is to keep an eye out for our colleagues and offer support where we can,” says Michelle. “If you notice someone is behaving differently – for example, they may be quieter than usual or appear agitated – don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re going and support them to reach out for professional support if they need it.  

“Social connections are great for our mental health too, so taking a colleague out for coffee or for a walk in the park at lunchtime can be a great way to help promote wellbeing at work.” 

Mental health issues can also arise in the workplace where people are exposed to trauma, work in roles where they have little control or have very demanding responsibilities, Michelle adds. 

“We also shouldn’t forget carers,” she points out. "A lot of them experience high stress, anxiety and other mental health problems associated with their caring role.” Many carers also have ‘lived experience’ of mental illness, and workplace stress may exacerbate stress associated with the duties of caring. 

Stigma and discrimination are also major challenges. Michelle cites one study where workers were demoted or fired due to their health. “Participants reported that colleagues didn’t believe their illness was real or serious or didn’t understand how mental health problems could affect behaviour and work performance,” she says. “Some reported being judged, avoided or treated as incompetent, and some felt that the employer didn’t provide any accommodations to support the person working or returning to work.”

Dr Michelle Blanchard’s top three pieces of advice to nurture workplace resilience

  1. Have upfront conversations about how you want to work together, what the signs might be if someone isn’t feeling great and how they might want you to help them.
  2. Encourage self-care – a walk in the park at lunchtime, or an afternoon off if someone has been working long hours.
  3. Be open to encourage an environment where people feel comfortable to raise concerns if they have them.

When having a conversation with someone you’re concerned about, it’s important to…

  • Choose the right time for the conversation, ensuring you both have enough time and space to talk uninterrupted.
  • Choose a safe, confidential space to meet.
  • Listen without judgement.
  • Don’t jump to solutions. People want to feel heard and respected.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes it can be hard for someone to find the words to express how they’re feeling; give them time.
  • Encourage the person to seek professional guidance and support. You may find it’s useful to offer to accompany them with when seeking assistance.
  • Remember to regularly check in to see how the person is after the initial conversation.

Resources/more information 

Small and medium business focus

WorkSafe Victoria’s ‘WorkWell Toolkit’ is an online hub providing research, tools and information to support a mentally healthy workplace. Find out how to apply the toolkit’s resources to your business. 

24/7 support

  • SANE Online Forums provide a safe, free and anonymous 24/7 online platform for connection and support.
  • If you or someone who know needs urgent help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.  
  • The R U OK? website includes important information, including advice on how to start a conversation.