Healthy workplaces must also be mentally healthy

Healthy workplaces must also be mentally healthy

By Jaelea Skehan

Like many people, I know what it is like to spend more of my waking hours at work than anywhere else.  So it is important for each and every one of us to be interested in ensuring that while we are at work we are safe and healthy. And there is no health without mental health.

The good news is that there is a positive influence of work on people’s wellbeing – it provides financial resources, a sense of purpose and facilitates social connections. But, the workplace can also have a negative impact on our wellbeing, with workplace stress, job insecurity, job demands and poor social support at work increasing the risk of mental ill-health.

While I have seen great momentum around workplace mental health in Australia, there are still many industries and workplaces where this has not been addressed at all.  Or alternatively, the response has been to offer only ‘one-off’ or ‘pre-packaged’ programs that are less likely to be effective.

So what does a comprehensive workplace mental health approach look like?  Here is a tip – it is not merely paying for an under-used EAP program or having fruit bowls in the office.

While strategies need to be adapted for specific workplaces, following are six elements I like to see in a quality workplace mental health approach.


  • Element 1 – Support good health and wellbeing of all staff.  This means ensuring a good fit between the job and the person doing the job, preparing people well for the work they need to do, having a culture of fairness and equity, good communication between managers and staff and increasing social connection and opportunities for peer-support.


  • Element 2 – Reduce individual risk factors. This includes strategies to reduce drug and alcohol misuse, to support healthy diet and physical fitness, good management of injuries or pain as well as increasing skills like financial management.


  • Element 3 – Identify and reduce environmental risk factors.  This will include fatigue management, reducing accidents and injuries, managing excessive stress in the workplace and having clear policies and actions to reduce bullying and harassment.


  • Element 4 – Build skills to identify and respond to problems early.  This might include education about mental illness, training for supervisors and peers to assist with early identification of problems, and building a culture where help-seeking is seen as a positive thing and where people offer support to others.


  • Element 5 – Provide pathways to treatment and support.  This may be offered through an Employee Assistance Program or through primary care providers.  Many workplaces have also benefited from peer-to-peer support models and connecting workers to prevention and treatment programs delivered online.


  • Element 6 – A good return to work, or stay at work, plan for those experiencing problems.  To do this effectively, workplaces need to manage absences well and address stigma in the workplace to ensure people do not return to averted gazes, silence or harassment.


On the 15 and 16 March I will be attending the NSW Safety Conference and Expo in Newcastle to help ensure that when we think about safety, we consider psychological safety at work. And when we think about health, that mental health is front and centre in all of our thinking.

On 15 March I will be facilitating a panel that will look at the issue of workplace mental health from a range of angles – exploring strategic and practical solutions for a range of industries and workplaces. I will be joined by Lucy Brogden, the co-chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Leanne Faulkner, a small business owner and advocate for small business mental health, and Andrew McMahon who heads up Mates in Mining – a peer-based suicide prevention program for the Mining Industry.

On 16 March I will be focussing on the unique needs and unique challenges of addressing psychological safety and mental health for small business owners, drawing on research Everymind has led with icare and the icare Foundation in NSW.

To make a real different to mental health and wellbeing we need every person and every setting to play a part.  That means every workplace.