How managers can lead the way to healthy work environments

COVID-19 has changed the face of our work life. Keeping your workforce mentally healthy has never been more important. Here, we look at strategies for creating a healthy work environment now and into the future.

Workers across Australia have experienced a change to their employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, it has meant coping with increased pressure as a frontline worker. For others, it’s meant adapting to working from home, which in itself can affect mental health.

Associate Professor Karina Jorritsma, lead researcher of Curtin University’s Thrive at Work wellbeing initiative, says the shift is presenting the nation with an empowering opportunity, one that some businesses are already capitalising on.

“Individuals, teams and organisations are taking stock, using this time to ask, ‘Why do we do things the way we do?’ and recognising that work design can buffer the impact workplace demands have on mental health, particularly considering COVID-19 has presented many new demands, and rapidly.

“A greater awareness of the role of work in mental health is developing, too, not just in the sense of offering support to employees who need it, but acknowledging the importance that productive and meaningful work has for mental health and wellbeing.”

With some knock-on effects of the coronavirus expected to be long-lasting – for instance, it’s likely that a growing number of employees will carry on working from home – Jorritsma says the energy and investment workplaces put in can be leveraged and carried into the future.

Using an integrated approach

Employers have legal obligations to support mental health in the workplace, but, as Jorritsma says, a work environment can influence mental health in a more strategic, holistic way and businesses can take advantage of it by using the “integrated approach”.

“As organisations start learning more about this, there’s often an ‘a-ha’ moment when leaders realise that they’re already using many of these tools – they just haven’t brought it all together under the umbrella of a mental health and wellbeing strategy.”

So, don’t feel daunted. You can incorporate what your organisation is already doing to support wellbeing as well as strengthening your approach using the three pillars of the integrated approach. These are:

Promoting healthy and thriving workplaces

This means creating conditions that allow employees to perform, connect with each other and grow.

“Workplaces have been impacted differently by coronavirus,” says Jorritsma. “Right now, it’s useful to look at the specific changes your organisation has experienced and consider how that’s impacted the demands employees are experiencing. From there, [you can] assess which strategies or resources could buffer or help to reduce those demands.”

Protecting workers from risks to mental health

Work design – which is the content and organisation of someone’s work tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities rather than the aesthetics of a workspace – is key here. Think role clarity, recognition, feedback and task variety. When it’s done well, it protects workers from exposure to psychological hazards by addressing them before they arise.

Supporting workers experiencing mental health challenges

This includes having leaders who are educated to monitor mental health, as well as taking steps to remove barriers around seeking mental health support, offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and accommodating employees’ return to work.

What to do as an employee

While it’s an organisation’s leaders who are responsible for creating a mentally healthy workplace, every individual can play their part. Jorritsma says job crafting, which is when an employee takes steps to shape the way they work, is invaluable.

“Once you’re aware of the different aspects of work that are important for mental health, there are a lot of things you can do, including asking yourself questions like, ‘What can I do to mix up my job and get more variety?’, or asking for more feedback, role clarity or connection with co-workers, if any of those things are lacking.”

Additional resources

This simple checklist aims to measure whether you, as a small business owner or manager, may have been affected by depression and anxiety during the past four weeks.

Creating a wellbeing plan is one way to make sure you have the strategies in place to look after your employees’ mental health and wellbeing – and your own.

Beyond Blue’s Workplace wellbeing plan helps small business owners who employ staff. This guide by Victorian Small Business Commission helps small business owners to create a wellbeing plan to help support their own mental health.

HeadGear is a free an easy-to-use smartphone app designed by Black Dog Institute to build resilience and wellbeing. Download it for free here.

Smiling Mind have developed a free mindfulness program for small business owners.

The Path back from Social Isolation publication is a COVID-19 resource and free interactive training module for business leaders and employees. You can download the pdf here.


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