How to boost mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

06 June 2022 Consultancy.com.au 5 min. read

As employees struggle to meet the intense demands of work-life and financial challenges in a post-pandemic era, the pressure on mental health is higher than ever. Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health, outlines how employers can use Employee Assistance Programs to boost mental wellbeing.

The economic costs of Australia’s epidemic of mental health problems are enormous. One study suggests that workplace-related psychological distress costs up to $17.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, Australia’s Productivity Commission estimates that poor mental health costs the national economy more than $200 billion each year.

Studies also indicate that workplace conditions are responsible for 15 to 45 per cent of mental health challenges experienced by employed adults. Unreasonable demands, exposure to violence and trauma, long or irregular working hours, and bullying and harassment are some of the leading causes of work-related mental ill-health. 

Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services, Centre for Corporate Health

Work is more than financial stability. It offers a sense of purpose, achievement, social interaction, and confidence. However, it can also cause significant stress, posing a risk to mental health and wellbeing.

Our new whitepaper – ‘Nurture, Empower, Thrive’ – examines the importance of understanding psychosocial risks and the challenges they present for employees. A psychosocial risk factor is any hazard in the workplace that negatively impacts employee mental health, including long working hours, work-related violence, and poor management.

By understanding the data related to psychosocial factors, organisations and policymakers can improve monitoring and exploring of wellbeing markers and outcomes at workplaces.

The cost of poor mental health

A survey of Australian workers found that nine out of 10 employees believe it’s crucial to work in a mentally healthy environment, but only half think their workplace is hitting the mark. Certain risks, such as bullying, sexual harassment, and occupational violence, can cause substantial acute harm.

However, more subtle concerns that impact wellbeing over time, including role overload, low job control, poor leadership support, interpersonal conflict, and job insecurity, can still hurt individuals and organisations.

The more psychosocial risks present within a company, the greater the risk of psychological harm to an individual.

A psychosocially healthy workplace delivers valuable individual, team, and organisational benefits, including improved work performance and productivity, lower costs associated with absenteeism, improved employee wellbeing and faster recovery times for employees with mental illness.

Organisations need to realise that there are also financial rewards in investing in a mentally healthy workforce, with figures from Deloitte indicating a return on investment of $4.10 for every $1 invested in mental health and wellbeing initiatives. This financial benefit usually results from enhanced productivity and reduced psychological compensation claims.

Conversely, where there are psychosocial risks, employees are at increased risk of psychological injury, disengagement, and reduced productivity. On average, poor mental health costs the Australian economy $12 million in lost working days, according to a joint 2018 study by KPMG and Mental Health Australia.

How EAPs can help your employees and business

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) offer mental health services to staff employed by a range of public and private sector organisations. Employers fund these services, which are free for employees to access.

Our whitepaper found that most users who have accessed EAP services did so for personal causes. With mental health concerns – anxiety being a leading reason for referrals between 2018 and 2021.

Impact of workload on wellbeing of male and female employees across New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria between 2018 – 2021

Data shows that 72% of females and 74% of males in 2020 and 67% and 65% were referred in 2021 to EAP for personal reasons. Also, more than half of the males across states faced the highest percentage of mental health challenges in 2021 (51% in New South Wales, 55% in Queensland, 57% in Victoria).

Further, family-based matters, intimate partner relational challenges and behavioural concerns were other key personal psychosocial factors that drove the highest degree of help-seeking among employees over the last few years.

Leading personal reasons for referral to EAP services for employees by gender from Victoria 2018-2021

Male employees were referred increasingly for intimate partnership related reasons at the height of the pandemic, and female employees for family reasons in 2020 and 2021. These numbers illustrate the importance of EAPs in the workplace.

Despite widespread efforts to reduce the stigma in seeking help for mental health issues, often contact with Employee Assistance Programs services is how employees initially find support rather than accessing public health or community mental health services. This could be due to the ability of EAP service providers to offer early intervention and timely support, whereas public health services may have long wait times.

Distribution of leading personal reasons across male and female employees in Queensland referred to EAP services between 2018-2021

Within this context, Employee Assistance Programs services provide accessible and mature solutions that serve organisations and employees well.

Organisations need to be proactive in identifying and managing psychosocial threats to support psychologically healthy environments. Identifying and responding to risks in an ongoing and proactive manner can significantly improve culture and organisational effectiveness.

A mentally healthy workplace ingrains the principles of nurturing and empowers its employees at every stage of their mental health journey, helping them succeed at work and beyond.