Mental illness affects people at all stages of life irrespective of their gender, race or socioeconomic status. According to beyondblue, one in five Australians experience a mental illness each year. In any given year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. At any one time approximately 20% of working Australians are mentally unwell.

The extent to which people are able to focus their efforts, collaborate effectively, invest energy and make good decisions is unquestionably impacted by their mental health.

Diminished work performance, morale and engagement, high rates of absenteeism and lost productivity are common and costly consequences of mental illness for many businesses.

While it may not be possible to avoid these impacts altogether an employer can make a positive difference in three critical ways; protect, educate and support their team. Protect people from mental and physical harm, educate leaders and staff about how to recognise mental illness and where help is available. Support people to manage the impacts of mental illness and access the help they need.

3 critical ways to manage mental health within an organisaiton

1. Protect your team

In Australia every employer has a legal obligation to provide a work environment free of risk to health and safety. This obligation relates as much to the mental wellbeing of people as their physical health. When consideration is given to the very real and detrimental impacts of mental illness on the productivity and performance of a team the commercial justification for making it a priority becomes clear.

Creating a respectful and compassionate workplace culture that inspires people to look after themselves and one another is among the most important ways an employer influences the mental wellbeing of their team. Every leader has a critical role to play in ensuring the experiences people have at work positively impact upon their mental wellbeing. Leading by example and holding people accountable for behaving respectfully are essential.

2. Educate your team

Despite the prevalence of the issue in Australian society many people remain relatively uneducated about both the signs of mental illness and what to do when they become aware of it. Ensuring people understand how to recognise when they or a work colleague may be experiencing mental illness is an important way of tackling the issue.

An all too common stigma associated with mental illness stands in the way of many people getting the help they need. Employers can play a powerful role in shifting the underlying attitudes that drive this stigma. Learn and share the facts about mental health and illness. Encourage people to speak up in protest when others display false beliefs and negative stereotypes. Lead by example and offer the same level of support to people when they are physically or mentally unwell. Talk about the issue. The more hidden mental illness remains, the more people will continue to believe that it is shameful and needs to be concealed.

3. Support your team

When surrounded by colleagues who care, people are entirely more likely to acknowledge when they are struggling. When supported by an employer who acts with compassion and provides encouragement, people are also more likely to put up their hand for help and ultimately get the assistance they need. Dealing with mental illness in our workplaces begins with making it safe for people to speak openly about their wellbeing and providing the support they need when they do.

What matters most is the attitude and approach an employer takes. While some employers are able to provide professional counselling support in the form of employee assistance programs, less formalised approaches can also make a substantial difference. Being willing to make adjustments to a role or accommodating flexible work practices can make a dramatic difference to someone’s ability to hold down their job while getting the help they need.