By Amy Cooper 16 October 2018

Good intentions are no longer enough and it’s time for action, say the game changers in workplace wellbeing. The new era of workplace safety requires managing employees’ psychological as well as their physical safety.

Every October, National Safe Work Month puts the spotlight on workplace health and safety – but in 2018 the campaign is redefining exactly what that means.

The new message from Safe Work Australia (SWA) is clear: safety means psychological as well as physical.

They’ve backed up the month’s messaging with a groundbreaking new guide for employers on workplace psychological health and safety, containing a step-by-step process for managing psychological injury, intervening early and taking preventative action, as well as outlining companies’ legal obligations to provide a mentally healthy workplace.

This guide is the first of its kind to apply a physical risk management framework to psychological welfare, and reflects a major nationwide shift in attitudes to workplace mental health.

Less talk, more action

After more than a decade of research and advocacy around workplace mental wellbeing by organisations such as Beyond Blue, SANE and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance’s Heads Up initiative, awareness is starting to translate into action.

“Our attitudes to psychological injuries have, changed,” SWA special advisor Dr Peta Miller says.

“We now recognise that work-related psychological injuries are real. They're not a sign of weakness. Importantly, they're preventable; we know what causes them, and we know how to fix them.”

Patrice O’Brien, Beyond Blue’s General Manager, Workplace, Partnerships and Engagement, is optimistic, too. “I think we’re riding a bit of a wave at the moment,” she says. 

“There’s been a shift when we talk about mentally healthy workplaces.” 

Governments, she says, are putting money behind their fighting talk. She applauds Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt’s recent announcement that the Productivity Commission will investigate whether current mental health funding is being directed effectively. O’Brien is also cheered by the Victorian State Government’s recent $50 million investment into WorkSafe Victoria’s Work Well mental health initiative, and the NSW’s Government’s $55 million investment into workplace mental health. 

“We’re riding a bit of a wave at the moment – there’s been a shift when we talk about mentally healthy workplaces.” Patrice O’Brien, Beyond Blue

The rewards of resilience

The increased urgency around mentally healthy workplaces is no surprise to Stuart Taylor, CEO and founder of resilience research and training organisation, Springfox (formerly the Resilience Institute Australia). “According to Safe Work Australia figures, work-related mental health conditions are overtaking physical safety as a critical risk in the workplace,” he says.

“As a consequence, leaders are beginning to feel an increasing urgency to invest in the mental health of their employees.”

Springfox’s 2018 Global Resilience Report, which examined the mental health of over 21,000 professionals in a wide range of worldwide industries, found Australian workers are among the least resilient people in the world, despite being one of the most physically active workforces. But it also showed that when businesses invest in resilience programs, they increase staff wellbeing by up to 47 per cent and deliver an average 30 per cent reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Workplace wellness

Strength in civility

Evidence-based programs such as these are growing in popularity as companies adopt a more proactive approach to mental health and psychological safety.

One of the newest is a world-first ‘civility intervention,’ created by Dr Michael Leiter, a professor of organisational psychology at Deakin University and world-renowned expert in workplace wellbeing. His SCORE (Strengthening a Culture of Respect and Engagement) program empowers teams to build a supportive, respectful culture together through detailed, often rigorous group work.

Says Dr Leiter: “We know a whole lot about what makes people burn out and distressed at work. The real issue is: what do you do about it?

“We've seen a lot of places put up signs about being a respectful workplace, and they do online training modules, but that isn’t really how you change culture. It’s much more complicated and compelling than that.”

SCORE is being piloted at Melbourne healthcare provider Western Health, in partnership with organisational development consultancy PeopleScape, and initial results are impressive, says PeopleScape senior consultant Jo Wintle.

“It’s groundbreaking,” she says. “The preliminary data is absolutely indicating that post-programme we are seeing a drop in levels of incivility, an increase in levels of civility… significant changes in the behaviour and culture in terms of day-to-day actions; a drop in absenteeism, and also a drop in client complaints.”

Getting on the right track

Wellbeing, Wintle believes, should be built into key performance indicators, and Stuart Taylor agrees. “Positive mental health is best supported by formalising practices that build resilience at every stage of the business,” he says. 

“For instance, making it a KPI for managers and senior leaders to support mental wellbeing in their teams.”

Ideally, says Patrice O’ Brien, such strategies should be enshrined in every organisation, as they are with physical health and safety. 

“We are still hearing employers saying: we see mental health as really important, we are going to do something for the next six-12 months,” she says. “You never hear anyone say that about physical safety at work.”

We're on the right track, she believes. “If you look at the gradual reduction in deaths as a result of workplace accidents, it’s an incredible result and that didn’t happen overnight.

“It took some time for employers to understand how embedded health and safety had to be within their business. There’s still work to do but we have come a long way, and with the right tools we can do the same around mental health in the workplace.”

Workplace wellness: Redefining workplace safety

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