The Future of Mentally Well Workplaces

Mental health and wellbeing is a complex personal, social and economic issue of concern for all of us. Modern society is faced with a myriad of stresses that can profoundly impact wellbeing, happiness, social participation, economic contribution and long-term life outcomes. The pandemic, geopolitical conflict, the rapid evolution of technology and social media, inflation and a blurred demarcation between work and personal pressure has dangerously increased the potential for a decline in overall mental health.

Organisations with strong people and culture strategies tend to have better job design practices (and a subsequent handle on balanced workload and moderating team/individual pressure); policies and procedures that support mental wellbeing and psychological safety; and ongoing training and support programmes that exceed current health and safety standards. Integration of mental health and wellbeing is a strategic decision that requires investment and commitment, it is not just a ‘nice to have’ component, it is the future of successful business.

Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is an increasingly important and rapidly evolving component of organisational life. The World Health Organization and the Global Burden of Disease study estimate that almost 800,000 people die from suicide every year. That’s one person every 40 seconds.

In New Zealand, The Health Promotion Agency estimates that one in five people will suffer from medium to high levels of mental distress, and this statistic is trending upward. There is a lot of public awareness around mental health challenges but for a long time these have been viewed as personal or domestic problems. While this view is changing and there are some excellent examples of progressive organisations prioritising workplace psychological safety, there are still many businesses playing catch up.

Most organisations have some workplace policies in place relating to post crisis services such as Employee Assistance Programmes, but many aren’t considering the advantage of preventative and early intervention strategies. The benefit however is clear, organisations that adopt early intervention strategies will experience far greater cultural, social and financial return on investment.

Research from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research and Xero shows investment in prevention and early intervention programmes have an average return on investment of 5:1, and in some instances up to 12:1, with traditional EAP services and post crisis services like counselling yielding an average return of 3.6:1.

The greater ROI of prevention programmes is due to economies of scale (one to many versus one to one) and the proactive nature of the course. This reduces the overall costs for demand services like EAPs and counselling, however, utilising the full spectrum of interventions provides the greatest support for employees. The longer the delay between developing mental health problems and receiving appropriate support and treatment, the lengthier and more difficult the recovery process may be.

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative to determine why some teams achieved great success and why others faltered. They found that across five key performance indicators, the most important factor that underpinned all others was psychological safety, otherwise defined as a climate in which employees feel comfortable expressing and being themselves.

Bringing your whole self to work requires candour and an absence of fear from negative repercussions to career, reputation, respect and earning capacity. Unfortunately mental health challenges still carry the weight of stigma meaning psychological safety can be a difficult climate to achieve so it is crucial that organisations educate and empower individuals so assessment and response can occur quickly at a peer to peer level.

Literacy programmes coupled with sounds psychosocial risk assessment paves the way for employees to be trained in other more practical programmes like mental Health First Aid (MHFA Aotearoa). These preventative and early intervention initiatives may reduce the need for external crisis and post crisis support, and ultimately encourages brave and vulnerable conversations; the cornerstone of psychological safety.

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