Supporting mental health at work

The second article in icare’s series on mental health at work explores how employers can increase productivity by building a psychologically healthy work culture.

Couple standing at the entrance to their store next to an open for business sign

One of the most compelling statistics on mental health in the workplace is that one in five Australians over 16 will experience a mental illness in any one year [1]. These people are represented in businesses across NSW and their experience at work will have a significant impact on how quickly they recover and become fully productive again. 

According to icare’s Injury Prevention Manager, Jennifer Cameron, this is one of the drivers for the “huge interest and discussion” occurring amongst employers about mental health at work.

“Employers are beginning to understand that this not just about claims, that the worker has a family and a life that may impact their mental health, and that this will come into the workplace. They are recognising that if an employee has a mental health problem, they are more likely to fall prey to an injury at work or to be less productive,” she says. 

“Add to this the psychological injuries caused by factors within the workplace itself, like interpersonal conflict, bullying or exposure to occupational violence, and you have an estimated national cost of $6 billion each year due to lost productivity. So it makes sense that employers are now more focused on building a psychologically resilient workplace culture, starting with prevention of injury and also providing support for workers who are experiencing a problem,” Cameron says.

Size of your business

Mentally healthy workplaces have been broadly defined as those which:

  • have a documented mental health strategy
  • promote mental health literacy
  • actively work towards minimising risks to employee mental health
  • support employees experiencing mental health problems
  • prevent discrimination [2].  

So how well are NSW businesses tracking when it comes to building psychologically healthy work cultures? 

To some extent the answer to this question will depend on the size of the business. A recent benchmarking survey undertaken by SafeWork NSW [3] ranked 15.4 per cent of the large businesses surveyed as being in the top tier for their approach to mental health in the workplace (Integrated and Sustained approach). This compared to 10.3 per cent of medium-size businesses and only 8.4 per cent of small businesses. 

At the other end of the scale, 20.7 per cent of small businesses surveyed were ranked in the lowest tier for their approach to mental health (Basic Awareness only), compared to 12.2 per cent of medium-size businesses and only 7.6 per cent of large businesses.

Large businesses

According to Cameron, most of the larger corporates in NSW understand the need to address mental health in the workplace and many are doing some great things in this space. 

The one common weakness, she believes, is their tendency to jump straight to secondary mental health strategies — targeting at-risk workers who have a higher exposure to risks or those who are showing early signs of mental ill-health — without addressing primary or preventative measures. 

“For these employers, taking a more structured, holistic approach will provide benefits. That means looking at the individual causes of mental ill-health in the workplace, like high job demands and low job control, as well as looking at factors within the organisation’s culture.” 

Employers who are proactive about prevention include Optus, which runs a Happy People and Happy Bodies program for its staff. Google is also a big promoter of psychological safety, having identified it as the No.1 key dynamic in successful teams.

So where should employers start when it comes to taking a proactive approach to building psychological safety into the workplace culture?

“Before you can understand what you need to do in the prevention space, your first step should be to assess the psychological safety in your particular workforce. Each business is different and until you know where the problems lie, you can’t begin to build a safer culture.”

Medium-size businesses

A common stumbling block for employers in medium-size businesses is that they often mistakenly believe they don’t have the capacity to address mental health at work because they don’t have a dedicated Employment Assistance Program (EAP) or in-house HR resource. 

“These companies think it will cost time and money they don’t have but the reality is that it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. There are many excellent free resources that these businesses can access online,” Cameron says. 

Websites where employers and managers can find quality, evidence-based resources on how to build a mentally healthy work culture include the following:

Manager training is a great example of the kind of evidence-based intervention that has proven its effectiveness and is freely available as an online resource. The Heads Up website, for instance, offers a toolbox, talk training package designed to equip anyone managing staff with the knowledge, skills and confidence to deliver mental health toolbox talks to their team. It aims to encourage conversations about mental health in the workplace, reduce workplace stigma and support staff who may be experiencing a mental health condition.

Recognising the need for a more systematic approach to mental health in the workplace, Safe Work Australia (SWA) recently released its first guide on work-related psychological health and safety [4]. This guide outlines how to identify psychosocial hazards at work and reduce or eliminate them. In releasing the guide SWA special advisor, Dr Peta Miller, said that similar to applying first aid for physical injuries, “an early and supportive response to any worker who is telling you they are experiencing difficulty can help". 

“Workers will offer the most valuable insights. They know what causes them harm and will have ideas about how to most effectively address the dangers to their mental health. My advice is to listen to the people doing the work,” Miller said.

Small businesses

Small businesses (less than 20 employees) are less likely to implement mental health programs than both medium and large companies. Although these businesses account for almost 98 per cent of all businesses trading in NSW, there is limited research available on their mental health needs [5].

To bridge this gap, icare recently commissioned the Australian institute Everymind to survey small businesses and examine the latest evidence to see whether online tools might assist them. 

The report released by Everymind in December 2017 found that small business owners and workers experienced depression, anxiety and stress at “concerning levels”. It identified a number of stressors for small business owners, including obligation to work when sick, financial stress, having multiple responsibilities (including responsibility for staff) and challenges in obtaining a work-life balance.

Based on these findings, the icare Foundation is now partnering with Everymind to invest in the development of a website and app specifically designed to support small business in managing mental health challenges. The Everymind research identified that sole traders, in particular, lacked support and faced high stressors. 

The prototype website and app will focus on sole traders through a pilot period, then evaluate the need for broadening the scope to micro businesses and other segments of the small business community after the pilot.

In the meantime, the websites mentioned above (Heads Up, Black Dog, Guarding Minds at Work) all host valuable information and tools that can assist small businesses, including sole traders, to develop simple, cost-effective strategies to build psychological resilience at work.

The next article in icare’s series on mental health at work looks at the best way for employers to move forward when a worker claims psychological injury. 


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008, National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results,4326.0, ABS, Canberra.

[2] Wyatt, Cotton, Lane, Return to Work in Psychological Injury Claims, Safe Work Australia.

[3] SafeWork NSW Benchmarking Tool, 2017, p. 4.

[4] June 2018 Mental health page - Safe Work Australia

[5] SafeWork NSW, Benchmarking Tool, 2017, p.4.