One in ﬁve Australians will have some form of mental disturbance each year and 45 per cent will suffer a mental health problem such as depression in their lifetime. Managers have a role in dealing with this. By Leon Gettler
Any manager who thinks “soft” issues such as stress in the workplace, burnout and depression have nothing to do with the bottom line should think again.
A Harvard study examining the financial impact of 25 chronic physical and mental health problems found workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days a year – nine of them because of sick days or other time taken out of work, and another 18 reflecting lost productivity. Other research has found employees with depression are more likely than others to lose their jobs or change jobs frequently.
Mental illness in the workplace is estimated to cost Australian businesses a staggering $6.5 billion every year. Statistics show one in four Australians will experience a depressive episode within their lifetime.
According to Comcare, Australia’s federal work health and safety regulator, claims associated with mental stress have risen 23 per cent since 2009-10. Comcare estimates one in five people in Australia will experience some form of mental disturbance each year.
Depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alcoholism, drug use disorder and bipolar disorder would be the most common.
A 2007 study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found 45 per cent of the general Australian population had experienced a mental health problem such as depression, at some point in their lifetime.
As many people spend at least nine hours a day at work, there has to be some spillover. That means the workplace can heavily influence the health of workers and that has to affect the community.
Psychologically healthy workplaces are high-functioning and productive zones. Resilience has become a critical skill for surviving and thriving in the workplace and managers are in a critical position to develop that.
Emotional intelligence expert Ben Palmer, who runs Genos International, says managers can be proactive by putting in place four strategies: giving employees mental strategies like problem-solving exercises; physical strategies around exercise and diet; shifting around the environment for events like meetings to create new energies; and relationship oriented strategies like mentoring.
“The research suggests that people who are quite resilient usually have at least one or two strategies in each of those four areas,’’ Palmer says. “They take a holistic approach.”
He says managers should also put in place formal learning programs to develop people’s emotional intelligence. “The vast majority of people in generation X and baby boomers don’t have sufficient emotional intelligence skills to not only be resilient themselves but build resilience in other people,’’ he says.
“For our generation and above, what’s really needed is explicit learning and development on how to perceive, understand and influence emotion. I think this is one of the biggest opportunities for business in the workplace at the moment.”
Supportive management, where managers give people encouragement and are prepared to step in where people are struggling, is critical for building resilience. Managers also have to be switched on to warning signs that people aren’t coping.
These signals can include everything from absenteeism and moodiness to reduced productivity. It is up to managers to not just register the signs but recognise the significance, step in and help people manage that particular situation.
Unlike other issues affecting the workplace, the solution required is generally based on individual and not team activity. It is about improving relationships with family and friends, accepting circumstances that cannot be changed, developing realistic goals, and having a longer-term perspective and hopeful outlook.
In fact, team activity could be counter productive. It may take place in a team setting but for those suffering from poor resilience the undertaking of team-activity could place precisely the type of strain on the individual that should be avoided.
An important aspect of resilience is the ability to set realistic goals, which involves a realistic assessment of individual capacity. This can work both ways – staff overestimating their capacity while others fail to achieve their potential.
Theorists suggest this is one area in which intensive interaction may be required because it reflects the psychological state of the individual. However, for most staff one of the keys is to improve self-management by improving their self-talk skills and making them more open to change, therefore improving their willingness to try new approaches.
The American Psychological Association, in summarising the ways to build resilience, places emphasis on accepting adversity and reducing its impact by taking decisive action in response, looking for self-discovery opportunities arising from loss and analysing stressful situations in a broader context. Much of it comes down to self-talk and helping staff build self-management skills.
Simon Matthews, a psychologist with the Centre for Corporate Health says: “The keys for people are to develop internal strengths in all the domains of our lives – physical, emotional, psychological – but also develop flexibility and a capacity to recognise that the world is not static, that change is quite normal, that unpredictability is quite normal, that everything we do is dynamic and things can change from one moment to the next.
“It’s about approaching life with the expectation that things are going to move and change fairly rapidly rather than approaching life with a fixed and rigid mindset.’’
He says managers have to make sure people under pressure look at the big picture and see that their work is achieving something.
“A significant component of resilience is having meaning and purpose in what you do,’’ he says. “So for people coming to work, it’s about feeling whatever task they’re doing has an important role in the functioning of the organisation and being able to see that and recognise what that purpose and function is. That’s an important part of helping develop emotional and psychological resilience.
“When people have hold of a big picture, and a small part of that picture gets shaken, there are plenty of other things for them to grab on to. When all they have is a small picture, there is very little else for them to see or take meaning from.”
While there are many managers who are switched on and supportive of the people they see as the company’s most important asset there are others who would take the view if people can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.
“We end up with people in key positions of influence in companies who might hold that view and that’s regrettable,’’ Matthews says. The ‘stand-up-and-cope’ response is not generally regarded by psychologists as particularly helpful even though it is still a first-line response of many organisations who could benefit from a greater awareness of the early warning signs of an inability to cope.
Apart from assisting employees to become more resilient and being alert for signs of an inability to cope, the key for managers is effective communication, role clarity and encouraging people to take a balanced approach to work.
Other strategies to help address the issue include bringing in speakers to lead sessions on balanced lifestyle issues such as cooking healthy meals, staying healthy while travelling and quick stress management skills.
Some innovative companies have even run coaching and disease-management programs that pair employees with online, phone-based, or face-to-face health professionals who can guide them through the steps of behaviour change.
This article appeared in the June 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.