While many workplaces already have some form of health program in place, there is increasing focus on developing a best practice approach to workers' wellbeing. In this article we explore this theme and the benefits of adopting a holistic approach to creating a workplace climate that promotes wellness, eliminates and minimises psychological harm and manages health and safety legal liability arising from psychosocial risks.

Sadly, 20% of the Australian population experiences one of the common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, in any 12 month period. From an employment perspective, mental illness is one of the leading causes of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia and is one of the main health related reasons for reduced work performance.[1]

Recent studies have shown that the cost of implementing wellbeing initiatives in the workplace outweighs the cost from the impacts of poor wellbeing. Every dollar spent on effective mental health actions returns an average of $2.30 in benefits to the organisation.[2] In addition to the cost benefits, the gains from having healthy and happy employees in an organisation are immeasurable.

An organisation needs to have a range of elements in place to create a safe and healthy workplace and achieve these positive returns. Thinking holistically is the key, and thinking outside the box can be very rewarding. Bringing your pet to work is one of the latest trends employers are embracing to support psychological wellbeing of workers as they can reduce stress, improve work-life balance, increase productivity and morale.[3]

What are the causes of mental illness and how does it impact on individuals and organisations?

An employee's mental health can be affected by a number of factors, some of which an employer has little or no control over. These factors include stress, poor working environment, poor nutrition, poor physical health, relationship issues and traumatic events.

Stress at work (and at home) can be a significant contributor to lost productivity as the mind is occupied by something other than the task at hand. It can also contribute to poor sleeping and eating habits and a negative outlook. An expert opinion survey conducted by the ILO found that the biggest work-related stress concerns in the Asia-Pacific region were work overload, time pressure and work-life balance.[4]

Mental illness and stress can have a personal effect on individuals such as sleep deprivation, smoking, drug taking, poor nutrition, relationship breakdown and accidents. These personal effects in turn affect businesses through decreased decision-making and attention, loss of productivity, absenteeism (days off due to illness, injury or stress), presenteeism (being at work while unwell) and high turnover of employees resulting in increased costs.

What should an employer do?

An employer has a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of workers and other people at the workplace, so far as is reasonably practicable.

A comprehensive workplace wellness program is an essential step in minimising psychological harm and risk in the workplace and achieving a healthy and safe workplace.

The concept of wellness has been defined by the World Health Organisation as the optimal state of health of individuals and groups. There are two focal concerns: the realization of the fullest potential of an individual physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually and economically, and the fulfilment of one's role expectations in the family, community, place of worship, workplace and other settings.

Every workplace and every individual is different and therefore strategies to encourage general wellness are most effective when tailored to suit.

A holistic approach involving the active participation and promotion of initiatives by management and a structure of assessment and review is seen as best practice. The key features of such an approach include:

  1. Awareness: Engagement, understanding and awareness of mental illness are important to remove the stigma and promote recovery.
  2. Assessment, Measurement and Review: Initial assessment to understand underlying issues can be done through employee survey, evaluation of absence data, exit interviews, turnover rates and audit of existing policies. Quantitative measurement, review and feedback will be critical for an effective approach.
  3. Design and Manage Work: Key ingredients to a meaningful engagement with a job can include variety, purpose, control, feedback and connection with others. In addition, improvements to the physical environment may assist with an employee's overall comfort.
  4. Leadership: An employer can demonstrate good leadership by encouragement of supportive relationships with supervisors, leaders and peers, effective management of conflict, clear communication between levels, ethical decision making, active engagement by leaders in mental health and endorsing a safe work environment.
  5. Workplace Wellness Programs: Providing a range of different wellness initiatives will encourage a broader participation. This may include social events, yoga classes, meditation, nutrition and fitness programs, volunteering, or even encouraging a pet friendly workplace.
  6. Support Recovery: In the event that an employee is affected by stress or mental illness, an employer's support will be critical, including an EAP program, extended leave or return to work programs.

The features of wellness initiatives will be different in every organisation, but the key message is to approach it in a holistic way to construct an environment in which employees feel supported and are influenced in a positive way. When employees' overall wellness is improved through workplace initiatives, everyone wins.