Mental health in the workplace

1 May 2020

In recent years, we’ve seen a positive shift in the way people view and talk about mental health. As a society, we’ve come a long way in reducing stigma surrounding the topic and recognising that mental health is just as important as our physical health. 

It is undoubtedly a complex topic, but one we cannot ignore, as more than half of Australia’s workers have experienced a mental health condition in their lifetime.  

Mental health encompasses our psychological, emotional and social wellbeing and it is the main driver of how we feel, think or cope with stress and interact with other people.
Mental health is a term that is often misunderstood and used interchangeably with mental health conditions or mental health issues. 

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We need to understand that mental health is a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

At TAL, we take a holistic approach to health. When we talk about promoting mental health, we look at the entire customer journey. From supporting employees who may be experiencing mental health conditions to developing initiatives to enhance good mental health. This may include creating an open and accepting environment where employees can thrive and enjoy being at work on a day-to-day basis. 

The fact is, most people spend the majority of their day at work and many studies have shown that workplaces play an important role in the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. 

As an organisation, we understand the importance of a healthy environment and that investing in designing a workplace that supports individual mental health will lead to increased productivity, employee engagement and happiness. Studies have confirmed the importance of a healthy work environment on mental health. More than that, they also show the impact of unhealthy workplaces as a predictor of mental health conditions. 

A recent survey by Superfriend found the most common barrier to achieving a thriving workplace is lack of appropriate skills in managers. As part of our efforts to create a supportive environment, we introduced our ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Training Program’ to all of our people leaders in 2018. 

The program was designed to equip our people leaders with the right skills and tools to support their direct reports and foster an environment where those direct reports feel comfortable in approaching their managers to discuss their individual mental health. 

More topically, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, TAL, like many businesses, has shifted to a remote working model where possible. Many of us are still grappling with the new normal and figuring out how to work from home in a sustainable way. 

What this also means is when we talk about workplace mental health, it is not confined to the physical office space anymore. With staff facing decreased interaction with people and spending less time outside of home, employers need to put more structure in place to ensure this significant disruption to our day-to-day lives will have minimal impact on our mental health as the COVID-19 situation continues.

And while social distancing will undoubtedly have an end date, the impact on our working structures including remote working and digital engagement will be changed forever.

Here are few tips that I would recommend for anyone working from home:

CREATE A DEDICATED WORKSPACE

Creating a dedicated workspace at home should be the number one priority when it comes to working from home. 

Once you have identified the space, you will need to ensure that you have everything you need to work effectively. Do you have an appropriate monitor? Do you have the right chair? 

Think of entering this space as entering an office and it will put you in the right mindset and enhance your focus. It will also keep you from overworking and set you up for long-term productivity and success. 

STICK TO YOUR DAILY ROUTINE

Some might think that working remotely means that we are always ‘on’ 24/7 and that you should squeeze in work whenever you can. However, if you don’t organise your day and treat it like a normal eight-hour workday, you risk burning out easily. 

Stick to your daily work routine and get dressed every morning. You will also need to be more self-disciplined and make sure to organise your day against your list of to-dos so that you can mentally prepare yourself for what to expect during the day. 

And lastly, don’t forget to set aside some time for mini breaks throughout the day, as you would in the office, to give your eyes, neck, shoulders and back a break, and have lunch at the same time as you normally would.

VIRTUAL MEETINGS 

The disconnectedness from your colleagues may make you feel lonely and isolated and loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety. 

I encourage TAL staff to use video calls over phone calls whenever possible. E-mails, instant messaging or phone calls do the job of communicating but they make it harder to build camaraderie with your colleagues in times like these.

Studies have also shown that teams that meet regularly are much more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems than groups that did not meet regularly.

BUILDING A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Working from home in isolation makes it harder to feel supported, even if your colleagues or leadership teams are there for you. There are many ways to build a support group, whether it’s an individual daily check-in or scheduling regular team video meetings. These will help foster a good culture outside of work and make people feel supported and valued.

EXERCISE REGULARLY

It is much easier for people to find an excuse to not exercise while working from home. However, exercise can lift our mood, reduce anxiety levels and assist in getting a better night’s sleep. It’s well known that doing exercise releases positive endorphins, so try to make a conscious effort to be active in some way. 

There are plenty of ways we can get up and be active. While lockdown measures are in place across the country, people are still allowed to go out for exercise, under the condition that you stick to the rules. Go outside for a walk or a jog and get some fresh air; alternatively, you can check out the many free online fitness apps or YouTube channels to help you stay fit and healthy at home. 

COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE

Communication is more important than ever and the key to success in remote work. Individuals must understand that everyone is feeling the same, so it is important that everyone makes an effort to interact with colleagues. 

If in doubt, communicate more than you think you should, because it builds trust. This is especially important in the current environment as remote workers can feel lost without feedback they would normally receive in an office setting. 

For TAL, some of our existing initiatives have put us in a strong position in challenging times like these. For example, our aforementioned ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Training Program’ has made sure that our leaders are confident to lead their teams and continue to support them to function to the best of their abilities, both as individuals and as a collective. We continually strive for excellence in the mental health space and the program is a good starting point for our organisation, and we will continue to coach and upskill our people leaders to ensure we are building their skills and capability.  

As we navigate through uncharted waters, it is important to note that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to looking after employees’ mental health. We need to constantly monitor and identify their needs and adapt our ways of working in order to offer them the best support. 

This is a challenging time for everyone, and employers need to recognise the need to provide additional guidance and support to their employees in the coming months so that we all come out of this stronger than before. 

It is not only a legal responsibility for employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace, but also a moral one.  

Glenn Baird is head of mental health at TAL.




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