When thinking about health and safety in the workplace, it may be easy to overlook mental illnesses.

After all, mental illnesses are, for the most part, invisible. Yet they are very present, with 45 per cent of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 experiencing mental illness at some point in their lives, making it highly likely that you will supervise or work alongside someone suffering from a mental illness at some point in your career.

How can we know what to look for and how to support our workers with mental illnesses?

A mental illness can originate in or out of the workplace and it’s often difficult to pin down one specific cause. Common causes include:

  • long-term and acute stress
  • genetics, chemistry and hormones
  • alcohol, drugs and other substances
  • low self-esteem, negative thoughts
  • social factors such as isolation, financial problems, violence or family breakdowns
  • experiencing traumatic events

Mental illnesses originating in the workplace often feed off unhealthy work environments, workplace incidents and conflict between individuals, occupational stress and bullying.

There are common mental illnesses resulting from the various stresses in a workplace including, although not limited to, the following:

  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • burn-out
  • adjustment disorder
  • depression
  • anxiety

Depression in particular is the biggest mental health risk in Australia, both in and out of the workplace. Only three per cent of Australians identify it as a major health problem, despite the fact that it is the third biggest health risk in Australia after heart disease and cancer. Considering the huge risk depression poses to workers, it would be foolish to not try to implement strategies to support individuals in the workplace – strategies to prevent mental illnesses as well as plans to act in response to individuals who already suffer.

Different employees will need different levels of support as they manage their mental health. Some employees may be able to manage their illness with little to no impact on their work, while others may need short-term support in the workplace to assist them. Others may need ongoing workplace strategies to be implemented in order to manage their mental illness.

Specific strategies will differ from workplace to workplace, but there are three directions that can be taken when thinking about strategies to help individuals in the workplace.

The first set of strategies is environment-related. Thinking about how the environment can be changed and how organisational structures can be shifted to reduce the stresses of a job at their source.

Once all has been done to reduce stress at the source, it is time to think of the workers themselves. Changing the way in which individuals respond to stress in the workplace can be a step in the right direction. For example, promoting positive reinforcement can drastically change the mindsets of workers. Focussing on the aspects of a job done well instead of emphasising what needs to be fixed or what was done wrong can promote the positive thinking that may be a contributor to the alleviation of work-related stress.

Thirdly, early detection, treatment of affected workers and supporting rehabilitation is essential in the promotion of mental health. This third way of thinking is focused on being reactive when it comes to mental illnesses. Knowing the warning signs, promoting healthy discussion about any issues workers may be having and being able to provide contact to practical support for affected workers is a great step to getting your workers to return to full health.

To read more about the symptoms of mental illnesses and the workplace strategies you can start using to help your employees, please visit Heads Up – a part of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance – at https://www.headsup.org.au