Making mental health a workplace priority

A thriving and healthy team of employees who feel good about coming to work every day – that’s just one of the many benefits of improving mental health in the workplace. It can help cut costs too – and just a few simple steps can make a big difference.

We often hear about the financial cost of poor mental health in the workplace – and it’s true that related presenteeism (the problem of employees who are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury or other condition, or are working more hours than required, due to insecurity about their job), absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims cost employers an estimated $10 billion every year, according to Beyond Blue.

On the flipside, the enormous benefit of good workplace mental health is employees who are able to remain productive at work, despite the challenges and inevitable ups and downs that are thrown their way. Monetary savings flow from here, as employees who feel good about themselves and their environment are likely to take fewer days off and work in a more focused and productive way¹.

According to Dr Mark Deady, a research fellow in the Black Dog Institute’s Workplace Mental Health Research Program, managers play a crucial role in their team’s wellbeing.

“Employees who consider their managers to be supportive are significantly less distressed than those who consider their manager to be unsupportive,” Deady says.

However, he also stresses that it would be wrong to consider work a major cause of poor mental health. “Work forms only part of a very complex beast,” he says. “But, ultimately, we spend a lot of our time at work, so work is going to have an impact and feel the impact of these other factors.”

If you look after a team in any way, the following tips and strategies can help you build a culture where people feel safe, supported and able to do their best work.

1. Learn what to look out for

A basic understanding of mental health can help managers identify warning signs. These vary from person to person and can range from poor concentration or performance to increased absenteeism, irritability or even aggression.

“You don’t need to be an expert, but it can be useful to know what to look out for,” Deady says.

If you’re concerned, you may be able to help:

  • Encourage the person to talk to you in a safe, private environment. They may not want, or feel able, to talk immediately but, if they do, listen rather than to try to solve their problems.
  • Consider whether you can reduce pressure at work – for example, more flexible hours and extra guidance and support. Offering time off sounds thoughtful, but isn’t always the best course. For example, someone experiencing depression might prefer being in a supportive and structured environment than being alone at home.
  • Suggest, if they’re ready, where they might go for further help. This could be an internal support program, an external support service or a GP.

2. Talk openly about mental health

The more your employees understand about mental health, the better prepared they’ll be to pick up on warning signs in themselves and in colleagues.

Naturally, some conversations must be confidential, but talking openly about general issues will help keep your team informed and decrease the stigma around poor mental health. You could also use these discussions to acknowledge achievements and successes.

You should also remember that, as a manager, you could face more stress and pressure than many of your employees. Adopting mentally healthy work habits such as taking regular breaks, leaving on time and going ‘offline’ at weekends will not only be good for you, you’ll be leading by example. Talking about your experiences could encourage employees to share their own.

3. Reduce stress where you can

A small amount of stress can be positive², delivering a short-term boost to concentration and productivity to help you achieve a deadline or a goal. But if the stress becomes persistent, it can have damaging physical and mental effects.

At work, typical stressors include:

  • Unrealistic workloads
  • Lack of clarity about a role
  • Uncertainty and insecurity
  • Poorly managed change
  • Low levels of control
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Bullying
  • Discrimination.

These can all contribute to anxiety and depression – as a manager, there are ways you may be able to manage them.

It’s important to monitor pressures to make sure they aren’t quietly building. You may also need to educate your employees on the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviours. A zero-tolerance approach to discrimination is required by law.

Tune in to our on-demand webinar

As part of the Financial Wellness Series, we recently hosted a free webinar on mental wellbeing and resilience at work. Dr Deady spoke with Tim Naim, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at NAB, about topics touched on here, and others including how technology can help build healthier workplaces.

Watch now


  1. Australian Government Comcare - Benefits to business: the evidence for investing in worker health and wellbeing.,_89.4_KB.pdf
  2. Health Direct – Stress.