Get the lowdown on mental health at work – an issue that affects us all.
Fun fact: we spend around 90,000 hours at work over our lifetime.
One of the biggest factors impacting our performance at work is our mental health, a historically taboo issue that is finally being discussed in workplaces around the county.
At any one time, one in five people in Australia is mentally unwell. “If you have a staff of 20, you’re likely to have four staff members that are coping with mental illness on a day to day basis,” says Janet Hopkins, general manager at Mindful Employer.
One in two of us will experience a mental health condition over our lifetime. “If we don’t ourselves have experience of depression or anxiety or one of the psychiatric illnesses, we will usually know someone who has, whether that is a friend or a colleague or a boss – usually someone in our orbit,” she says. “In a workplace, you are going to come up against people who are dealing with all sorts of issues at a physical and emotional level and with mental health.
In an ideal world, most of the time we spend at work is rewarding but, inevitably, sometimes the workplace will be stressful – especially in today’s fast-paced digital age. Stress helps motivate us, but it is also a significant contributor to mental health issues.
One of the most common causes of workplace stress is heavy workloads, says Hopkins. Overloading may occur when there is a large volume of work to do and too few people to do it or during a particularly busy period. Accountants, for example, frequently work long hours in the lead up to the end of the financial year. “There are some things that are unavoidable,” notes Hopkins.
Change is another issue. “Things like takeovers, mergers, structural changes, positional changes, promotions, performance reviews – all these sorts of things can cause stress,” says Hopkins. “It can be something that’s quite simple like lack of job clarity…where you are hired to do what you think is in your job description but for some reason…you’re not quite clear on what you’re doing.”
Adverse working conditions also create stress. A study released in 2018 found that more than one in four FIFO workers experienced very high psychological distress due to factors such as social isolation, shift work and the strain on relationships.
Some jobs are by nature more stressful than others. Emergency workers, paramedics, defence personnel and police deal with traumatic events on a regular basis and experience higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the population. Tragically, 110 police and emergency services workers died by suicide in Australia between 2000 and 2012.
Signs of strain
A marked change in behaviour is a sign that someone, whether it’s your colleague or your boss, may be struggling with a mental health issue. “It could be someone who always met deadlines suddenly missing them or someone who is normally calm and patient becoming short-tempered.”
Emotional signs may include aggression, anger, short-temperedness, forgetfulness, haphazardness, a lack of focus and indecisiveness. “When you’re not feeling well and you’re struggling with depression, not only is your energy low, but you can struggle to make decisions and you can lose confidence and begin second-guessing yourself and being self-critical.”
Other warning signs to look out for include unexplained absences, an increase in the number of sick days, or a fall in productivity.
How to manage stress
The first step is recognising that we are suffering from stress in the first place. Stress can gradually accumulate over time without us noticing – like a frog slowly boiling in a pot of water. “There’s a point at which it becomes too much, and it exceeds our ability to cope with it – that’s when we get burnout,” says Hopkins.
Be conscious of the different sources of stress in your life – not just at work. “If you’re getting overloaded, talk to your managers,” she says. Take steps to reduce stress – go for a walk at morning tea, switch off your devices at night, eat well, and spend time with colleagues.
Where to find help
If you’re concerned about a colleague’s mental health, ask them about it, advises Hopkins. “What a lot of people need is an opportunity to talk about what is going on for them,” she says. These conversations can be tough, she acknowledges. “The first time you ask, you might get rebuffed.”=
The most important thing is to make sure you listen to what they have to say. “Listening is so important, and sometimes that’s all people need,” Hopkins says. “Make sure that you give yourself enough time and privacy to have that conversation – don’t start it two minutes before an important meeting.”
If you are struggling with stress at work, go and talk to somebody about it, says Hopkins. Many larger organisations have an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides support and counselling to staff. “If you’ve got an EAP at work, use them – give them a call,” she says. “You may be entitled to free counselling sessions.”
If you don’t have access to an EAP, see your GP. “Talking to somebody makes an enormous difference,” says Hopkins. “The percentage of people who don’t ask for help is huge.”
If you are suffering from a mental illness or you would like more information about mental health, visit the beyondblue website or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.