Employers in construction and other industries must take concrete steps to improve mental health outcomes across their workforce, a new report says.

In its Allianz Future Thriving Workplaces report, insurance firm Allianz says amounts paid out for mental health claims through its workers compensation insurance products have increased by 80 percent since 2017.

Meanwhile, a survey it conducted of 1,005 employees and 501 managers showed that 80 percent of workers want their employer to take action to address mental health in the workplace.

In construction specifically, the report found that one in fiver workers rate their employer’s understanding of the impact of mental health issues on the work and quality of life of their employees as either bad or very bad.

Both across industries generally and in construction specifically, the report found that stigma and culture are barriers to addressing mental health issues.

All up, 38 percent of workers across all industries and 41 percent in construction felt that mental health conditions may not be taken as seriously within their firm as physical health conditions.

Moreover, additional challenges can arise where culture or practices within workplaces are unsatisfactory. Across all employees, 39 percent of workers say that ineffective or unfair management has impacted their personal wellbeing. Meanwhile, 33 percent, 24 percent and 24 percent respectively said likewise about poor workplace culture, bullying and harassment and poor organisational structure.

The report comes as data revealed by The Australian shows that more than one million Australians have sought mental health assistance since the outbreak of the coronavirus (The Australian, p1, Wednesday 14 October), whilst there had been a 30 percent rise in mental health cases in Victoria over the past four weeks during lockdown.

Even before COVID-19, however, workplace mental health has been a serious issue.

In the construction sector, Mates in Construction says that 190 construction workers take their own lives each year.

This compares to 24 construction workers who were killed in a workplace accident last year.

Julie Mitchell, Chief General Manager, Workers Compensation at Allianz, said the importance of prioritising mental health within workplaces should not be underestimated.

For workers, emotionally supportive environments can help to deliver a sense of autonomy, accomplishment and purpose and can facilitate positive interactions and better personal finance achievements.

For employers, mentally healthy workers are likely to be more productive, remain in their position for longer and deliver better overall performance.

Conversely, poor mental health can lead to additional or unplanned time away from work and can affect productivity, increase absenteeism and ultimately detract from the bottom line.

Asked about factors within workplaces which can aid or detract from mental wellbeing, Mitchell says the report indicated that masculine culture of the construction sector remains prevalent as a barrier to mental health outcomes whilst more needs to be done to address communication barriers.

Still, she says the report demonstrated positive signs across many sectors as industries such as education, health, IT and banking/finance have made encouraging progress.

Furthermore, she adds that practical initiatives do have an effect. Almost four in ten workers believe that their employers have successfully implemented mental health support and activities, she said.

Asked how employers can identify those needing help, Mitchell talks of several areas.

“Employers should look out for signs an employee might be struggling, such as monitoring their workload, any physical/laborious strain, absenteeism, performance and attitude,” she said. “At an organisational level, they can review turnover rates, time off for injured employees and the number of psychological, as well as physical, injury claims. These are just some of the metrics businesses can use to benchmark their employees’ wellbeing.”

“Many employers forget that the most valuable source of insight for understanding current workplace sentiment is often right in front of them – their employees. Seeking employee feedback through regular anonymous employee mental wellbeing surveys, suggestion boxes, or workshops can offer a treasure trove of insights into the overall wellbeing of a workplace and help foster a thriving workplace.”

When going about this, Mitchell encourages employers to use resources from insurers and state-based workers compensation bodies such as guides, research papers, seminars and training. Speaking of her own company, Mitchell says Allianz has a new dedicated Mental Health Hub which offers a series of resources including guides for employers on how to facilitate a mentally healthy workplace.

According to Mitchell, several characteristics are common in mentally healthy workplaces.

First, employers in many mentally healthy workplaces make it clear that caring for personal emotional wellbeing and the mental wellbeing of colleagues is a celebrated behaviour and encourage and support workers in discussing their mental health.

Flexibility is also important. In the Allianz research, workers indicated a desire for include built-in flexibility (41%), extra time off (38%), proactive check-ins (34%), wellbeing programs (33%) and the introduction of mental health awareness training (32%). As an example, where possible, workers could be given a degree of control over their working hours. This would provide a sense of control over their working environment by enabling them to choose their own work patterns and shift schedules.

To create a healthy workplace, Mitchell encourages employers to let workers know that concerns associated with mental wellbeing will treated with equal seriousness to those associated with physical health.

Where they have sufficient resources, employers can provide options for self-managed coping strategies such as resilience training, as well as a formal support service can be useful. This is especially useful in the male dominated construction sector where stigma is likely to be high and discreet support may be needed.

Next, roles should be examined to ensure that they are not adding undue stress and strain on physical and mental wellbeing. Workers who struggle to complete their role, Mitchell says, can often experience additional physical and mental stress. Physically demanding roles in particular require regular evaluation, she says.

On this score, Mitchell says free, voluntary onsite health assessments within the workplace may help to ensure employees are fit enough to complete their duties. An example of a tool used to ensure employees are safely able to perform their duties is wearable sensor technology that enhances injury prevention.

Finally, employees could be given opportunities to provide feedback on job design for physically demanding roles along with the ability to communicate issues that affect their health. Whilst expert opinion should ultimately be considered in relation to job design, Mitchell says workers are more likely to take part in initiatives which been constructed around their input.

Overall, Mitchell says a purposeful and deliberate approach is needed.

“We can’t take a scatter-gun approach,” Mitchell said.

“The priority is addressing each individual’s wellbeing as no case is the same. Our actions need to be meaningful to employees, and embedded throughout all organisations.