Mental health and flexible working: what you need to know

There are three emerging challenges pressing on mental health in the age of COVID-19.

Professor Samuel Harvey

Professor Samuel Harvey

The perception of isolation, the pressure on workers to prove that they are working, and the reduced ability of managers to actively observe their team and notice who is struggling: this is the triumvirate of emerging forces pressing against workplace mental health today.

Black Dog research

While Australian workplaces were trying to map uncharted waters around the COVID-19 pandemic, the team at one of the country's leading mental health research institutes, Black Dog, were probing the burgeoning mental health undercurrents.

"We're particularly concerned about a number of different groups of workers," said Senior Academic Psychiatrist Professor Samuel Harvey, Head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the Black Dog Institute and University of New South Wales.

These include workers who have lost their jobs, workers for whom COVID-19 has changed the nature of their jobs, and workers already struggling with their mental health pre-pandemic.

Acute and long-term impacts

We know mental ill health costs the Australian economy over $12 billion every year due to sickness, presenteeism, staff turnover and workers compensation claims, however COVID-19 is adding an extra layer of complexity to the landscape and its long-term mental health effects and the economic repercussions will likely reverberate across the years to come.

A study into the acute and long-term impacts of the pandemic, completed by Black Dog researchers last year, found that of the 5,070 participants, 78 per cent reported their mental health had worsened since the outbreak. Uncertainty, loneliness and financial worries (50 per cent) were the most commonly cited concerns, while over half of all respondents reported increased depression, anxiety and stress levels.

What can I do?

According to Professor Harvey, there are several steps leaders can take to help mitigate some of the mental health risk to their workforce:

  1. Be on the lookout
    We know that early intervention is one of the best ways to stop a mental health problem escalating. When staff are working from home, managers need to remain vigilant to proactively pick up on the warning signs of an issue before it snowballs.
  2. Frank and honest conversations
    It may sound simple, the best way to support the mental health of your team working from home or from the office, is to regularly ask people how they are (and really listen when they tell you).
  3. Invest in manager training

    Managing the mental and emotional wellbeing of a team is a learned skill, and often it is overlooked when it comes to management training. But if you are serious about supporting the mental health of your workforce, then investing in mental health training for your managers should be on the top of your 'To Do' list, according to Professor Harvey.

    "We did a study where we found that a one-off four-hour training session with managers, teaching them how to notice when a worker is struggling and how to have mental health conversations, created long-lasting benefits for both the manager and the team that they were leading," said Professor Harvey.