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9 October 2020 posted by Nadine Neate

2020 has been an especially difficult year for Victorians so here’s how to maintain a mentally healthy workplace during COVID-19 and beyond.

Victorians have really been through the wringer, lately. The restrictions, stress and isolation brought about by lockdown measures have impacted even the most mentally robust of us, and the challenge isn’t over yet. As restrictions begin to ease and Victorians head back into workplaces, there will be a period of adjustment for everyone. A busy office or packed commuter train that used to merely be annoying may now feel threatening because of community transmission, and the casual ways we used to interact with each other in a physical space are long gone. Everyone has changed, through individual and collective grief, loss and stress. Not everyone has jobs or a workplace to go back to, but for those that do, what can be done to keep them psychologically safe in this transition and beyond? While many people have experienced mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic conditions, many also experience psychological illnesses or injuries outside of these circumstances. Mental health in the workplace is of vital importance at all times, not just in crises. So, how can employers help to maintain mentally healthy workplaces in Victoria and offer support that endures through conflicts and calm? Here’s some background and a few ideas:

How is mental health protected legally in Victorian workplaces?

To start with, it’s important to understand what the legal obligations of Victorian employers are when it comes to the mental health of their employees at work. The legal obligations of Victorian employers fall under the following laws:

  • Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (VIC)
  • Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC)
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Commonwealth)
  • Fair Work Act 2009 (Commonwealth)
Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (VIC)

In Section 5 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (also referred to as the OHS Act), a definition for health is provided that stipulates psychological health as included in the term. This means that employers must provide a working environment that is safe and without risks to health, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employers are thereby tasked with consulting with employees on health and safety matters, identifying hazards and deciding on measures to control risks. This may include measures or strategies that address any risks to the mental health of staff. Employees have a corresponding duty to take reasonable care for their own health and safety and for the health and safety of others in the workplace who may be affected by their acts or omissions. Employees must also cooperate with the actions an employer takes to comply with an OHS requirement.

Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC)

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (VIC) prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination against employees on the basis of their mental health impairments.

Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Commonwealth)

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Commonwealth) prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination against employees on the basis of mental disability.

Fair Work Act 2009 (Commonwealth)

Section 351 of the Fair Work Act (2009) states that an employer must not take adverse action against a person who is an employee or prospective employee of the employer because of the person’s mental disability.

Please note, while these laws cover the major obligations of Victorian employers in the protection of employee mental health, there may be further obligations under federal, state or international law that apply in specific circumstances. Further information can be found in this document from the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office, and at Safe Work Australia and WorkSafe Victoria.

Why should employers care about the mental health of employees?

Some employers may believe that the mental health of their employees is none of their concern, however, mentally unhealthy workplaces can have a variety of negative consequences for employers, too. These include:

  • Increased operational costs for absenteeism, presenteeism and workers compensation claims
  • Decreased morale and engagement of staff
  • Poorer productivity, performance and/or work quality
  • Increased staff turnover and decreased retention rates, and
  • Risks to the reputation of an organisation.

In fact, according to the Black Dog Institute, ‘Mental illness is the leading cause of absence and long-term incapacity in the workplace.’ So, apart from the moral and legal considerations, it’s clear that employers need to put mental health on their agendas to help safeguard the psychological wellbeing of their employees, attract new talent to their business and avoid the impact of a mentally unhealthy workplace on their bottom line.

What are the main hazards to good mental health in the workplace?

As we’ve referred to above, Victorian employers have various legal obligations that provide a framework for the protection of their employees’ mental health, one of which is a duty to address risks or hazards to good mental health in the workplace. These are sometimes referred to as psychological hazards. According to Safe Work Australia, psychological hazards may include:

  • High job demand
  • Low job demand
  • Poor support
  • Poor workplace relationships
  • Low role clarity
  • Poor organisational change management
  • Poor organisational justice
  • Poor environmental conditions
  • Remote or isolated work, and
  • Violent or traumatic events.

Exposure to these hazards can lead to work-related stress, and consequent psychological or physical injury. As such, high levels of resources that help to address and mitigate these hazards are an important feature of mentally healthy workplaces. These may include measures to increase support, praise and recognition in workplace dynamics; measures that evidence the employer’s commitment to procedural justice, and; measures that enshrine consultation and communication processes with employees.

How else can Victorian employers facilitate mentally healthy workplaces?

Apart from identifying and addressing psychological hazards such as those mentioned above, there are a number of things Victorian employers can do to facilitate mentally healthy workplaces. In fact, there are a number of things that employers are already doing. At Recovery Partners, we’ve observed that there’s a growing awareness of the critical nature of mental health protection in the workplace, and of the consequences when it’s neglected. Over the past few years, we’ve also noticed an increase in Workplace Wellness and Employee Assistance Programs integrated into workplaces, and we’ve seen how both employees and employers enjoy the benefits of these. More and more employers are embracing initiatives such as RUOK Day, which helps to stimulate conversation around mental health in work contexts.

But, while these measures are good, it’s also vital that efforts to maintain mentally healthy workplaces continue year-round, not just on dedicated days, and are implemented in full, reviewed and improved upon to meaningfully address the requirements of the workforce in question. Tokenistic gestures or ill-considered initiatives will ultimately be ineffective, but collaborative approaches to workplace mental health and safety ensure that organisations can property identify and address what is needed and get actionable feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Mental health training within organisations is a good way of ensuring this issue is prioritised and employee take-up of proposed activities, services or initiatives is high across all levels of the business.

SafeMinds Mental Health Training

The right mental health training can be invaluable in helping employees and employers mitigate or lessen the effects of mental health challenges in the workplace. It’s financially astute, too: a study conducted by UNSW Sydney and the Black Dog Institute concluded that, in addition to large reductions on work-related sickness and absence, mental health training can provide a return on investment of $9.98 for each dollar spent on training. Training can also help an organisation to address and combat the stigma surrounding mental health issues. An appropriate mental health training program focused on prevention can equip people with the tools they need to recognise and respond to mental health issues as they arise.

Organisations can assess their training needs based on:

  1. The level of risk presented by psychological hazards. This can be assessed by:
    1. Reviewing absenteeism data
    2. Reviewing incident and injury data
    3. Conducting employee surveys
    4. Seeking feedback in employee exit interviews
    5. Examining Employee Assistance Program data
  2. Examining the potential benefits of improving mental health in a workplace.

The amount and type of mental health training that an organisation requires can be determined after this assessment. Recovery Partners helps many organisations through our SafeMinds Mental Health Training. This training is delivered by experienced, registered psychologists. We tailor content to your organisational needs, which can include the following topics:

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Mental Health Awareness
  • Psychological Injury Prevention and Management
  • Resilience and Mental Toughness
  • Stress Management
  • Communication
  • Conflict Management
  • Suicide Awareness
  • Manager Skills and Providing Feedback.

These topics are packaged and presented in creative and engaging ways and can be delivered face to face, or through audio-visual presentations, toolbox talks or live video/Skype/Zoom sessions.

What other mental health services does Recovery Partners offer to employers?

Employers can provide our Employee Assistance Program to their employees as a free, confidential telephone counselling service operated by registered psychologists. Recovery Partners also offers a variety of Psychological Services, including Job Task Analysis and Pre-Employment Health assessments.

Sound good?

If you’re an employer and you’re interested in building and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace, get in touch with Recovery Partners by calling 1300 647 789 or emailing enquiries@rrp.com.au. Our qualified staff are happy to help!

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Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at www.workcover.nsw.au