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Care for your mental health at work | Icare: Workplace safety


One in five Australian workers are likely to be experiencing poor mental health at any given time






One in five Australian workers are likely to be experiencing poor mental health at any given time
Photograph: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Hiep Vu/Getty Images

We might like to whinge about work, but generally it’s good for our mental health. It provides structure, can keep us mentally and physically active, presents opportunities for learning and socialising, and gives us identity and social status, as well as money (though obviously not as much as we’d like).

However, work’s influence on our lives isn’t always positive. Violence, bullying, trauma, stress and social isolation in the workplace can cause mental health issues. And pre-existing mental illness can be exacerbated by an unsupportive work culture.

One in five Australian workers is likely to be experiencing poor mental health at any given time, according to a recent CSIRO report, which identified rising mental health issues as a megatrend likely to shape Australian workforces in the years ahead.

Fortunately, the topic is no longer taboo.

“We are seeing a rising awareness of mental health issues,” says clinical and organisational psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, a specialist in workplace psychological health and safety.

“More people are willing to come forward and talk about mental health in the workplace. The stigma is reducing.”

Claims relating to mental health cost 1.5 to 2 times more than average and result in more than twice as much time off work



Claims relating to mental health cost 1.5 to 2 times more than average and result in more than twice as much time off work Photograph: shapecharge/Getty Images

Everyone’s responsibility

While ‘conditions impacting on mental health’ made up just 3.7 per cent of workers’ compensation claims in NSW last year, these types of claims tend to have bigger repercussions, says John Nagle, interim Chief Executive Officer at icare (formerly Workcover NSW).

“The cost of claims for conditions impacting on mental health is about 1.5 to 2 times the cost of all claims, and injured workers that suffer from conditions impacting on mental health take more than twice as much time off as all injured workers,” Nagle says.

Almost 40 per cent of mental health claims are due to harassment, bullying or exposure to workplace violence. Work pressure accounts for 32 per cent of claims.

It’s going to take a group effort to reduce the prevalence of workplace mental health issues and manage them, Nagle says.

“Everyone has a role to play: businesses, the community and family, workplace teams, managers, and governments at all levels.”

Cultural change

icare is about to sign a tripartite agreement with the NSW Mental Health Commissioner and SafeWork NSW to provide a holistic approach to reducing mental health stigma. It’s also rolling out a trial to support small businesses with their mental health needs, and working to encourage a change in workplace cultures.

Companies are increasingly getting on board by providing health and wellbeing programs and access to counselling, says icare Injury Prevention Manager, Jennifer Cameron.

“Employers are being more proactive, and are seeing that by doing this they can contribute to a more engaged and more productive workforce.”

Proactive employers include Optus, which runs Happy People and Happy Bodies programs for its staff, and Google, which is a big promoter of “psychological safety”, having identified it as the No.1 key dynamic in successful teams.

But not all employers are enlightened, and whether to tell your boss about a mental health condition can be a big dilemma. There’s even an online interactive tool to help workers decide whether to speak up.

“This is the litmus test for a mentally healthy workplace,” Dr Cotton says. “If you or a colleague had a mental health issue, are you confident you would be well supported?

“With a good employer, managers will proactively initiate conversations with anyone they worry is at risk. It’s not about them becoming a counsellor; it’s about steering that employee towards help.”

The first port of call if you have mental health concerns should be your GP, says Dr Cotton.

Companies are increasingly getting on board by providing health and wellbeing programs and access to counselling



Companies are increasingly getting on board by providing health and wellbeing programs and access to counselling Photograph: Hero Images/Getty Images/Hero Images

Tips for good mental health

Mindfulness apps such as Smiling Mind and the Headspace meditation app can be useful tools to promote good mental health, Dr Cotton says.

And while we’re talking self-help, there are plenty of other measures you can take to improve your state of mind, says icare Chief Medical Officer, Dr Chris Colquhoun.

One of the most important is to get active. The mental health benefits of exercise are clear. Switching off and letting your mind rest is also important. “Limit your time on screens, particularly at night,” says Dr Colqhoun. “Leave the phone in another room when you go to bed.”

This might also help you get a good night’s sleep (another important factor in mental health) and maintain a healthy work-life balance (ditto).

After your good night’s sleep, express gratitude. “People who are grateful for what they’ve got tend to report higher levels of happiness,” Dr Colquhoun says.

And if you can’t think of anything to be grateful about, at least try to see the funny side of things – which, generally speaking, is a pretty useful skill if you want to be happy at work.

“Laughing lowers cortisol levels and increase endorphins,” Dr Colquhoun says. “It’s really good for you.”

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14
Depression and anxiety support and info: beyondblue 1300 224 636

To learn more about how icare supports NSW employees and employers head to icare.



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