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Mental health management key to workplace leadership

Mental health management key to workplace leadership

Imagine if 20 percent of a workforce was underperforming and it was because of poor leadership at the upper levels of an organisation. I'd certainly be asking the question 'what should human resources do?'

Unfortunately we don't need to imagine this situation: one in five people experience some form of mental illness every year and many of these people go unsupported because less than half of their managers understand how to deal with staff who have a mental illness.

Results from a survey conducted by mental health organisation SANE Australia have revealed that company leaders leave a lot to be desired when it comes to dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

Although SANE Australia executive director Jack Heath said lower-level employees and middle managers were more aware of mental illness in the workforce, and discriminated against the mentally ill less, he said it was different at the very top.

''People in the boardrooms of major Australian companies, who are often a bit older, are more reluctant to acknowledge mental health as an issue that needs to be addressed," he stated, as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald. ''A couple of very high-profile corporate executives have in the past week told me how they didn't think mental health was an issue and had a very dismissive view of mental illness."

Key points from the survey:

  • Just 43% of respondents said they received 'understanding' from managers about their mental illness.
  • Less than a third (30%) had been offered flexible work arrangements.
  • Four in five (75%) have never received information or help from government programs designed to support employment needs for those experiencing mental illness.
  • Almost all the respondents (95%) recommended education and training for employers and managers.

According to Heath, mental illness costs the economy more than $6.5 billion, making a good case for finding a solution to deal with these issues. SANE has started a program called Mindful Employer to help executives recognise the effects of mental illness. Heath recommended that employers provide the funding to train staff to address mental health as well.

Read the SANE Working life and mental illness research [PDF].
Find out more about SANE Australia's Mindful Employer program.

For what it's worth

This points to a significant gap in current human resources and management training. A lot of the coursework in HR and management courses looks at maximising business performance through employee engagement in areas such as 'Establish effective workplace relationships' and 'Promote team effectiveness' subjects. What organisations need to realise is that employees experiencing mental illness will affect that story but in a way that has not yet been comprehensively covered in the existing qualification framework.

There are different types of mental illness, some are congenital, some are not, some are temporary, and some are not. Different people also have different ways of coping with mental illness so it is worth HR staff and managers acquiring discrete skills in identifying mental illness, supporting employees and providing a 'mentally healthy' workplace without judgement so they can deal with individual cases.

Let's not forget that mental illness affects one in five employees every year and that $6.5 billion in productivity is at stake. Making a commitment to promoting good mental health in the workplace therefore has social and financial benefits—and let's face it, it's just a decent thing to do.

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