Over half of all Australian employees will experience workplace bullying at some point in their working life, and it’s is just one trigger of the untreated mental health conditions that cost Australian employers over $10bn a year.
Workplace bullying leads to stress, anxiety and depression, but isn’t confined to aggressive physical or psychological acts, or colleagues spreading lies and rumours. Nor is it just a ‘tough’ management style, or somehow the fault of the target.
“Often its supervision staff making unrealistic or excessive demands on people’s time and doing it with implied or stated repercussions,” says Gerald Haslinger, psychologist and educator at the Sydney Recovery Support Centre, an organisation that delivers one-to-one counselling and corporate mental health education training programs.
Australia’s record on workplace bullying isn’t great, driven in part by the corporate culture and the stigma attached to admitting there’s a problem. But the conversation has started, and that's a step in the right direction.
Start a conversation about culture change
Part of the problem is the workplace culture in Australia; 65% of Australian workers do more than 40 hours a week and close to 20% do more than 50 hours, and that doesn’t include the extra hours we’re putting when we’re not in the office thanks to technology.
Job security fears and a competitive market perpetuate the culture of long hours, so employees are under pressure to do more, and that increases the risk of mental health problems.
The issue is also compounded by how we communicate in the workplace, says Haslinger. "In Australia, we see assertive communication as being aggressive," he says," so for many people, the default is passive communication."
Not being able to say no means we're taking on too much and that leads to stress and anxiety. That chips away at your self-esteem and you either blow-up or fall into a heap.
Organisations need to create a climate where it’s OK to leave the office at a reasonable time, and it’s OK to say you’ve got too much on your plate.
Create a mentally healthy workplace
"A key message for people to hear if they are struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression is that it's common, and most people make a full recovery," says Haslinger.
So organisations should start by creating an environment where it’s safe to talk about mental health issues without repercussions.
"It needs someone at the senior level to say I know someone who is struggling with this or I've had personal experience and I don't want it to happen to my team," he says.
There are also more structured steps an organisation can take including:
- Introducing toolbox or lunchtime mental health talks and book qualified speakers to discuss mental health issues
- Nominate and train staff as mental health first aid officers
- Ensure staff can always access support through a well-publicised Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Create a safe space, such as a quiet zone in the office, where there’s literature on mental health issues
Looking after the mental health of your team isn't just the right thing to do it's the most cost-effective. PWC research shows for every S1 invested in creating a healthy workspace, the average return is $2.30.
“The reality is that for most organisations the biggest insurance cost they face now is mental health”, says Haslinger.
Check in with your wellness
Breaking the cycle depends on the availability of support, but it also depends on knowing there’s an issue and being willing to seek help.
Haslinger suggests regularly checking in with yourself to see how you’re travelling. Ask yourself how you’re getting on with your friends and family. Have things changed; do you still do the hobbies you used to?
If the answer is no, then commit to making a change. Call friends you haven't chatted to in a while or dust off your running shoes and head out for a jog.
Also, check in with the way you interpret the world. Is every bad day a catastrophe?
"Ask yourself is what I'm telling myself helpful or true", says Haslinger, “and if the answer is no then make a commitment to think differently”.
If the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or even a chat with your GP seem like too much at first, then Haslinger recommends confiding in your most non-judgemental friend, the one least like just to tell you to cheer up. The first step in dealing with stress, anxiety and depression depends on others validating those emotions; regardless of how ‘good’ your life might look to outsiders.
The first steps to creating a mentally healthy workplace need to come from employers. Initiatives such as RUOK and the social media movement #itsoktotalk are also starting the conversation about mental health issues in the wider community.
But regardless of how it starts, it’s a conversation that needs to take place every day, in every workplace.
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