Exploring Mental Health in the Workplace

Workplaces play a crucial part in the mental health of every individual worker. This article will examine what mental health is, how workplaces can positively and negatively impact on individual employee health and why workplaces need to take action to protect mental health.

 

What is mental health? Confronted with this question, our mind usually brings up negative connotations such as mental illness, psychological disorders, depression and the like. But is this a true reflection of what mental health is? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the technical meaning of mental health is “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well being”1. Extending from this, mental health has also been defined as “…a state of wellbeing that allows people to realise their potential while coping with the ordinary challenges of life”2 and “a state of well-being in which every individual…can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”3. The conclusion we can draw from these definitions is that mental health is connected to a state of psychological wellbeing that affects each and every one of us in the way that we live, work and act. It can be surmised that, if mental health is a state of wellbeing, we will experience varying states of mental health – positively or negatively.

 

Reflecting on our modern lives, what occupies most of our waking hours? They are usually taken up in work and work-related activities – getting ready for work, travelling to and from work, productive and results-driven work, taking work home with us, working overtime and responding to emails and phone calls outside of work hours, training and development, keeping up with the latest news in our industry, even mulling over work related items after we’ve left the workplace. Our positive mental health is tied inextricably into our ability to work productively, in making a contribution – it can give us a sense of purpose, and prevent mental illness4. Conversely, our mental health can be affected by stress (particularly long-term stressors), inadequate resourcing, level of work engagement, exposure to traumatic events, lack of support, poor relationships, ineffective leadership, lack of training, organisational change, not being recognised or rewarded for work, injustice and poor workplace practices5. Work can therefore play a huge role in our state of mental health – the hazards inherent in the work we do, and our level of exposure to it highlight the crucial need for employers to protect and prevent risks to employee mental health.

 

It is important that all workplaces are aware of, and fulfill, their ethical and legal obligations to protect the mental health of their workers. In broad terms, workplaces have an ethical duty to “do no harm” in ensuring their workers psychological health6. Under the OHS Act of 2004, employers must create and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk to the psychological health of its employees, provide and maintain safe systems of work, as well as consult with employees of any matters which may affect their psychological health, identifying hazards as well as appropriate risk controls. Employees also have a duty to ensure their acts or omissions in the workplace do not affect the psychological health and safety of those around them, as well their own7. Understanding the key part the workplace has to play in contributing to the mental health of its workers, and in consideration of legal responsibilities to protect psychological health, each and every one of us has a part to play in maintaining a mentally healthy and safe environment.

 

Work is intrinsically tied up with an individual’s mental health, in their ability to be productive and make a satisfying contribution to society. Identifying the risks to worker mental health, and the amount of time they are potentially exposed to negative influences, employers are in a crucial position to ethically and legally care for their employees mental health.

 

In our next blog, we will examine what mental wellbeing is, and how workplaces can contribute to mental wellbeing across the organisation.