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Meeting worker mental wellbeing obligations for employers

The mental health aspect of workplace health and safety is subject to increased focus by regulatory bodies such as Safe Work Australia and the Fair Work Commission. Currently businesses are legally obliged to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees by eliminating or minimising risks and taking steps to prevent harm to workers. In this article the Gallagher Workplace Risk team provides risk management guidelines for businesses to meet future legislative expectations.

27 October, 2022
Mental Health, Article
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Current mental health and wellbeing conditions and influences

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the way that we work has changed, as evidenced by the Headspace consultancy 2022 survey results which recorded that 99% of participants said they were experiencing stress in their work situation, with 40% missing a week of work due to workplace stress. 

While 65% acknowledged the most effective response would be to talk about the issue, 52% were reluctant to engage in discussions for fear of it affecting their credibility. These results highlight the need for businesses to embed mental health initiatives into their culture.

Along with a greater expectation that businesses should prioritise addressing psycho-social risks, the Safe Work Code of Practice has suggested a management framework that mirrors an operational risks approach. 

At the same time the Victorian government has proposed updated health and safety regulations stipulating that businesses must identify and address risks, and have a prevention plan for managing workplace issues such as

  • Aggression or violence

  • Bullying

  • Exposure to traumatic experiences

  • High job demands

Further, this plan must 

  • Be in writing

  • Identify measures for controlling risks

  • Confirm consultation has been undertaken

  • Be produced on request up to 5 years from inception.

This is significant because Victorian legislation is often adopted by other states after local implementation.

Such a move raises the need for an in-house pyscho-social counsellor to oversee this function on an ongoing basis, rather than just responding to a crisis. Some large organisations such as Australia Post have introduced an executive position for managing health and wellbeing. 

Employee assistance programs fulfil requirements in some respects but historically represent a reactive approach after the harm has occurred. A preferable business model would include early intervention and recognition of risks.

Factors that contribute to positive workplace mental health

Data supports the business case for a proactive approach to mental health and wellbeing in positive outcomes including 

  • Greater productivity

  • More control over absences

  • Minimises performance issues

  • Staff retention 

  • Taking an active approach to problem solving.

In some industry sectors, such as nursing and teaching, the demands on staff can be intense, involving workplace violence and aggression, for example. Some initiatives have been shown to help counter this, including

  • Training to enable workers to know how to respond to risks

  • Support for people exposed to known risks

  • Team and cultural support, which has been shown to increase resilience

  • Leadership capability in responding on a personal rather than operational basis.

Strategies for developing a positive workplace mental wellbeing framework

While larger businesses may be in the position to employ a qualified mental health practitioner, for smaller operations the efficacy of peer support by a group of appropriately educated team members compares favourably to employee assistance programs in terms of their shortcomings. These include not being designed for reporting, confidentiality limiting available information, lack of managerial accountability, the associated stigma in some workplaces and status as a last resort.

Mental health first aid training for interested employees provides both peer support and helps raise mental health awareness. A 2021 study by Gallagher insurance partner Allianz found that 80% of those surveyed wanted more emphasis on mental health in the workplace.

While a business psycho-social health framework can be structured in a similar way to addressing operational risks through formal assessment and analysis and implementing systems, with stakeholder input at all levels, other factors may be more important, such as

  • Systems, policies and procedures

  • Visible leadership

  • Psycho-social hazard management of recognised risks

  • Capability and resilience

  • Organisational culture and connection

  • Diversity, inclusion and equity

  • Early intervention. 

It’s also important to recognise that psycho-social risks can’t be eliminated completely and that process is not as critical as culture and employee and team involvement.

Protective factors that contribute to workplace mental health wellbeing include

  • Worker and team support

  • Appropriate training

  • Personal development opportunities

  • Resilience and coping tools/support

  • Openness and regular reviewing

  • Decision making channels

  • Rewards and recognition

  • Purposeful work

Implementing a mental health wellbeing strategy

Rather than focusing on prevention an effective mental health strategy is expressed through workplace culture. At the organisational level this should be visible through systems and leadership, at team level it contributes to performance, and this is supported by team members collectively and individually. 

This cascade effect can help drive accountability for a positive mental health culture at all levels from individuals, teams and executives.

The stepped process involves 

  • Top-down organisational goal setting 

  • Developing policies, resources and job resdesign where necessary

  • Implementation of key hazard management strategies

  • Training and skills building

  • Team member training and resilience building

  • Individual mental health support and planning (if necessary).

This article was brought to you by the Gallagher Workplace Health & Safety consultancy.

The award-winning Gallagher Workplace Health & Safety consultancy works with client organisations to assess and implement systems to manage risks, delivers
mentoring and training, assists with structuring health and wellness programs, hazard and risk profiling and highly configurable online safety management systems