We spend a significant portion of our lives at work, so mental health is not an issue that workplaces can afford to ignore. The mental wellbeing of worker's can have a significant impact on productivity and performance, employee retention, absenteeism, and staff attitude and behaviour. It is estimated that mental health issues costs Australian businesses $10.9 billion annually.
This highlights the gravity of mental health in the workplace, and the importance for it to have the same visibility and priority as physical health and safety.

According to SANE Australia, mental illness is a major cause of long-term workplace absenteeism in most developed countries. In Australia, the Heads Up 'State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia' report has found that one in five employees have taken time off work because they have felt mentally unwell. The most common causes that are triggering worker absences are stress, depression and anxiety.
Mental health has also been associated with high presenteeism. Presenteeism is the phenomenon where employees remain at work for extended periods of time, even though the symptoms of their mental illness are causing significantly reduced productivity.

Currently, there is a discrepancy between how much importance we believe should be placed on mental health and what is being executed in the workplace. 9 in 10 Australians interviewed by Heads Up stated that they believe mentally healthy workplaces are important, however only 50 per cent of them consider their workplace to be mentally healthy.
The workers that believed their workplace was mentally unhealthy were consistently more likely to exhibit protective and avoidance behaviours surrounding their mental wellbeing, than the employees that believed their workplace was mentally healthy. These protective and avoidance behaviours hinder the reduction of stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, and perpetuates a culture that discourages help-seeking behaviours.

Creating an environment that promotes positive mental health should be a top priority. A concerted effort needs to be made from the top-down, in order to support employees with mental illnesses. Not only is this the right to do, but there are significant benefits for organisations that invest time and resources in the mental wellbeing of their workers. Heads Up posits that each dollar spent on improving mental health in the workplace can produce a return of roughly $2.30 in benefits for the company.
Here are some strategies that employers can implement to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, and develop an inclusive, respectful and supportive space for all.

Tips For Employers

**- Highlight Commitment from Senior Management and Leaders **
The most important step in creating a mentally healthy workplace, is to secure and show consistent commitment from senior management and leaders. Management holds the resources, funding, and power that is necessary to encourage organisation-wide change. Without strong guidance and committed support from leadership, surface level change can only be achieved and potentially allow a mentally unhealthy workplace to develop. Lasting change can only be created through the establishment of policies, procedures and programs addressing, mental health, bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Also, commitment from senior leadership is vital as it sets an example for workers. Company culture starts at the top and is emulated by workers, so it is important that management recognises mental illness, acknowledges its presence in the workplace, and endeavours to cultivate a workplace that promotes healthy mental wellbeing. Since, this is the precedence that has been set, employees will perpetuate this inclusive culture and help to reinforce it from the ground up.

- Check in With Your Employees
It may sound obvious, but it can be a very effective method for breaking down barriers. Taking notice of your workers, simply starting conversations and regularly asking them how they are going, can help employers build meaningful and positive relationships with employees. Regular check ins can also help management and leaders identify changes in mood or behaviour that may be indicative of a mental illness. This allows management to nip any potential issues in the bud, and devise strategies to help them cope at work.
Building a rapport with your employees will help them be more open to discussing their mental health and feel more comfortable seeking help.

- Educate & Train Staff About Mental Health
Providing and enabling access to knowledge surrounding mental health is extremely important. This is because it empowers employees with the information they need, to be able to help those experiencing mental illness, in a meaningful way. Educating your team, especially those in leadership positions, about mental health is crucial as it gives them the tools to understand what their fellow workers may be experiencing, the ability to develop appropriate strategies that could be implemented to assist them whilst at work, as well as an awareness of external resources that may beneficial for workers dealing with mental illness.
Furthermore, educating staff on mental health is important as it allows workers to identify if they are experiencing symptoms of mental illness themselves, give them the confidence to reach out and knowledge of avenues where they can seek help.

Also, educating  your workers and increasing their knowledge surrounding mental health can help to significantly reduce stigma and any negative misconceptions held by their fellow workers. Negative preconceived notions of those living with mental illness can be very harmful, as it can potentially worsen their mental health due to feelings of alienation and shame, and delay the worker from seeking out they help they may need. Education can help to decrease prejudice against those suffering from mental illnesses and will provide the foundation for a more accepting workplace to flourish.

- Provide Flexibility
Another way that employers can support workers with mental illnesses, and prevent performance from being significantly affected, is to provide the option for flexible work arrangements. Flexible work options can include altering start and finish times, working from out of the office, compressing work weeks, working part-time and so on. The autonomy that this gives employees living with mental illness is tremendously valuable, as it allows the employee to better manage work alongside other commitments, reducing some of the stress associated with everyday life. With workplace flexibility, workers experiencing mental illness are able to take control of their schedule, allow them to work at a pace and in an environment where they are most productive, and give them the time to take better care of themselves.

For more resources on how to create a mentally healthy workplace, click the  links below:
- Heads Up
- Comcare
- Institute of Managers and Leaders
- Mental Health First Aid International
- Australian Public Service Commission

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