Looking after employees with mental health issues is not only the right thing to do, it’s good business, Lifeline Chair John Brogden said today. 

Mental health in the workplace was just as important as physical health, he told attendees at our webinar Creating mentally healthy workplaces in a COVID world. 

If you have a psychologically well and safe workforce, you get more productivity out of people,” Mr Brogden said.  

“Not only that but Work Health & Safety laws do not differentiate between physical health and mental health — between physical safety and psychological safety. 

“You have to do it by law. It’s black and white. 

“Think of how compliance has changed for physical safety and imagine that’s exactly what’s going to happen with psychological safety in the workplace over the next 10 or so years. 

“Just as we’ve seen fewer physical deaths in the workplace, we need to adopt that approach with psychological safety in the workplace. 

“However, knowing if someone is mentally ill or how mentally ill they are is a challenge. We have less tangible methods of measuring mental illness than we do for physical ones.” 

Mr Brogden said it was much harder for smaller businesses to deal with mental health issues given they lacked the money and resources to offer stress leave or provide Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) common in many larger firms. 

“If you have a small business with five staff and one of those people goes on sick leave, that’s 20% of staff gone,” he said. 

“To help small businesses, I think the Government should provide an EAP so if you’re worried about somebody, you as the boss or you as the worker can do one of two things: you can encourage them to use the EAP, which is free psychological advice to help them get through that difficult time, or you as the manager can pick up the phone and say ‘I’m a bit worried about this person’.” 

When it comes to reaching out to a colleague — or a friend or family member — who seems to be struggling, being blunt and direct is the best approach, Mr Brogden says. 

“If you’re really worried about someone, actually say to them: ‘Are you OK? I’m really worried about you. Do you want to kill yourself?’ 

“Every bone in our body says: ‘I can’t ask that question. How rude. Those words can’t come out of my mouth.’  Or ‘won’t I be putting the thought in their mind?’ 

“However, all of our research shows you’ve got to be blunt and you’ve got to be direct. Don’t gloss over it.  

“If someone says they do, in fact, want to kill themselves, treat it like a physical emergency. You grab them, you call 000, you tell the responder you’ve got someone who is suicidal with you, or you take them to an emergency department. Whatever you do, don’t leave them.  

“Ask the blunt and direct question and be prepared for the worst.  You’re likely to get either ‘everything's alright’ or ‘look, I’ve got a real problem.’  

“You don’t have to be a heart surgeon to help someone who’s had a heart attack in front of you. At the very least, you ring 000. You don’t walk away. Nor do you ignore them and nor do you think they’ll look after themselves. 

“We need to change our attitude and for small businesses and medium businesses, they need help to do that. They can’t do it all by themselves. And that help could come through the Government assisting with an EAP.”  

In most cases, the manifestation of mental health cases in the workplace was caused by stress or trauma at home, Mr Brogden said. 

“It might present itself in the workplace and be exacerbated by the workplace but it may not be caused by the workplace,” he said. 

“However, in some cases, it is caused by what’s happening in the workplace. It might be caused by bullying, narcissism by a manager, disregard for people’s health or bad behavior in the workplace. 

“You’ve got to look for signs of changes in behavior in people in the workplace.” 

These might relate to: 

  • appearance (looking dishevelled and unkempt) 
  • mood (quiet and withdrawn when usually upbeat) 
  • eating (not eating or eating more than usual) 
  • sleeping (falling asleep at work or yawning excessively) 

Mr Brogden said the impact of COVID-19 on mental health was staggering. 

“Two years ago, Lifeline was receiving 2,500 calls a day,” he said. 

“Two weeks ago, we peaked at 3,600 calls a day. We never thought we’d see those call numbers. That’s 40% higher over two years. 

“A lot of callers are saying not only had they never called Lifeline before but they thought they’d never need to call Lifeline. These are people who thought Lifeline was for other people until they were hit by this crisis. 

“The mental health side of COVID is not going to leave us anytime soon. It will most likely last a lot longer than the physical side of COVID. 

“The big message we’ve been pushing is that ‘it’s OK not to be OK’.  

“These are unprecedented, unpredictable times for Australia and the world. The workplace is the hardest place to deal with this.  

“However, we need to celebrate the fact that people are reaching out.  

“We’re getting better every minute of every day, but we’ve got a long way to go. 

“If you get this right, you get loyalty. People think ‘my boss looked after me’.  

“Yes, it will cost some money and some flexibility but it’s a value proposition.” 

You can call Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14. 

 

 

   

 

 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is the Senior Content Writer at Ai Group. She is a former journalist with more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.