Mental Health - the intersection of People, Work Design and Workplace

I've been thinking about how to communicate the necessity of workplace mental health (and mental resilience) being more than a 'tick the box' exercise in designing the right processes and systems, then expecting employees to look after themselves. Too often I have heard, "But we have an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) - surely that's enough?" For small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), upon which our economy relies, this may in of itself be a stretch since EAPs can cost an employer great deal of money. Some larger workplaces may have a more extensive toolkit of interventions including (roughly in order of increasing frequency):

  • Flexible working policy
  • Return to Work policy (and a RTW Coordinator if you are lucky)
  • Health and wellbeing programs
  • In-house medical support
  • Mentoring and coaching
  • Mental health literacy training
  • Peer support and/or buddying
  • Spiritual support

However, these are all essentially people systems. Having read the responses to my post Why should employers care about psychosocial risk management? (a couple of them are included below) and seen the level interest from health and safety professionals in particular, I believe there is a need to say more about the important intersection between systems and people.

"I once had a job interview where I expressed that good managers must address the mental, psychological and spiritual health and wellbeing of their people. The looks (or blank stares) I received were priceless. I started talking about something else."
"Businesses are about people, how we manage them and how we deal with them has a significant multiplier effect on a business' profit. Psychosocial health not only impacts on rehiring, cost of Workcover or Comcare claims, but more significantly and often forgotten is the level of discretionary effort a business receives from their employees and hence their productivity."

Work Design and Workplace

To begin with, we should understand that psychosocial hazards are broadly related to work design and workplace. However, it is the way these two things intersect with an individual that affects the way they feel about their work and how the feel at work.

Elements of Work Design and Workplace affecting how we feel

Elements of Work Design and Workplace affecting how we feel

Typical Psychosocial Hazards

Typical Psychosocial Hazards

People Complexities

To create mentally healthy and resilient workplaces, we need to understand and support people. Recognising that people are much more complicated than our people systems and processes can generally account for, we have to recognise that the way we feel about/at work is also affected by and affects our thinking, our motivations (why we work) and our behaviours (how we work). Clearly, two people asked to do the same job under the same working conditions are not going to perform the same way. This is due to:

  • The values, experiences and beliefs that affect the way we think about work.
  • Why we work, which is not just about the simple monetary reward, but the qualitative benefits we derive from working, like social connection, contribution, learning and growth (or development), and the recognition we receive for the job we do.
  • The individual talents, knowledge and skills we bring to work, together with the equipment (plus people and environment) we are given to work with, that affect how we work.
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N.B. Recognition becomes a psychosocial hazard if performance is not being recognised, efforts go unnoticed, accomplishments are not celebrated and people's passions are being discouraged or ignored. 

Life Outside Work

The other huge component affecting people's mental wellbeing and resilience at work are external factors, something we often call our 'work-life balance'. For some people whose work becomes their life, this may not be such an issue! Although I would argue a lack of 'home life' is a matter for concern. For most people though, we need to acknowledge that home life is vitally important: their mental health will be affected by the amount of stress they are under, the responsibilities they carry and the support they receive. Also, conflicts between the demands at work and at home can lead to stress and hence poor mental health.

Having been an 'internationally mobile' person for half my working life, I would like to add that in my experience, 'people' and 'place' are also important influences on a person's mental wellbeing. It's a concept that Indigenous Australians are very attuned to - the need to feel connected to the people and the place that you are living in, i.e., a sense of 'belonging'. In addition, people want to feel safe, to make a contribution to their communities, their value be recognised, and to learn and grow in their personal lives (as well as at work). 

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Talking with Indigenous Australians, you will also discover they are greatly affected by their history - the events they have experienced, their upbringing and the society in which they spent their formative years. This is something none of us should ignore. The route cause of a lot of mental distress is traumatic events, most particularly if these occur in childhood. So if you are concerned about someone's mental health, you would be better to ask 'What happened to you?' as opposed to 'What's wrong with you?'

Iceberg Analogy

To sum up, I would like to encourage you to picture the person you see at work as the 'tip of an iceberg'. The iceberg analogy is often used in relation to diversity at work, but I think it works just as well for mental health. Under the water's surface are the thoughts and feelings that affect the way they behave. Also under the surface is their home life (or life outside of work), their sense of belonging and their history. Their mental health will depend on how choppy the sea is at the time (due to work and/or life outside of work). So, workplace mental health can never be a 'tick the box' exercise - it's dependent on each individual, as much as our work designs and workplaces.

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