One of the fastest growing areas of occupational health and safety is psychological wellbeing. This goes under many different titles, brands and trademarks but mental health seems to be the dominant term at the moment. On 22 December 2010, the Australian Government faced the reality of the issue and created a mental health working group that includes many of the government’s harshest critics, including 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor Paddy McGorry.
This is a positive initiative but as with much of the recent criticism of mental health, workplace mental health often draws the short straw. There is a belief that social policies flow to the workplace but we know that this is not the reality. If it was, OHS laws would not have been required, as social morality would have ensured that workers were safe without governmental intervention.
The scope of the working group is still unclear but as work is an important part of most Australians’ lives, it is reasonable to expect that the working group consider some occupational initiatives. The risk with this expectation is that the process could become dominated by the occupational wellbeing advocates from the HR sector and could exclude those with a broader understanding of psychosocial hazards in workplaces. This risk can be seen by the focus of many existing wellbeing programs on providing symptomatic relief or focusing on building individual resilience rather than examining the organisational structures that provide the conditions for poor mental health practices.
Early signs are not promising as The Age newspaper reports that:
“the group is expected to examine three other key areas of need: community-based services for teenagers and young adults, better co-ordination of health and social services for people with severe psychiatric conditions, and development of telephone and web-based counselling services….”
The new working party needs to establish a new unifying terminology for social and occupational mental health approaches.
“…that the creation of the new, time limited, specialist group would allow for targeted advice to be provided directly to the Australian Government on how to achieve the most coordinated, cost-effective and lasting reforms for our investment in mental health care.”
It is hard to see lasting reforms without strong consideration of the role of workplaces in both creating and controlling mental health issues. It remains to be seen what the consultative process is for the working party’s deliberations.