The Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research (ISCRR) has released a set of guidelines for the prevention of mental health problems at work. Such guidelines have been sorely required in Australia where workplace mental health problems have become an increasing problem for workers and organisations and workplace bullying dominates the policy landscape. It recommends the development of a mental health and wellbeing strategy that includes the following elements:

  • “the development of a positive work environment that supports and encourages mental health
  • balancing job demands with job control
  • appropriately rewarding employees efforts
  • creating a fair workplace
  • provision of workplace supports
  • effective management of performance issues
  • provision of training to develop management and leadership skills
  • supportive change management processes
  • development of a mental health and wellbeing policy
  • provision of mental health education.” (page 1)

This is an enormous task but one that has to be undertaken if the cost and social impact of psychosocial workplace hazards are to be prevented or minimised.

It is unlikely that many companies will have sufficient resources or, at the moment, motivation to implement such a strategy.  Some have already begun part of the strategy under the various organisational culture changes but to most these strategic elements will be major challenges.  The challenge is likely to be unavoidable but some will see this as an additional, and possibly unjustified, business cost.

Depression and Workplace Bullying

Coincidentally, in June 2013 Safe Work Australia (SWA) released a survey report outlining “The relationship between work characteristics, wellbeing, depression and workplace bullying“.  The summary report says that the practical implication of the research is that:

“Adequate support from colleagues and managers and fair reward for effort may help to prevent the occurrence or minimise the consequences of depression and workplace bullying.” (page 2)

In layman’s terms, play well with each other, show respect and treat people with dignity and fairness.  Not a radical OHS and wellbeing agenda.

The SWA report has not garnered a great deal of media attention yet and there is the risk that the findings could be “over-egged” with bullying getting the most attention.  However the report includes findings on other areas of human resources and organisational conduct, such as

  • work-related injury,
  • sick leave,
  • managerial support, and
  • work benefits.

The SWA report deserves attention for the robustness of the findings but Safe Work Australia needs to do more or increase the emphasis on what businesses could do about the findings.  This is where the ISCRR guidelines are so attractive.  The SWA report does provide some guarded suggestions which SWA needs to flesh out.  On page 15, the summary report says

“…a potential practical implication of these findings is that awareness of the consequences of adverse work characteristics and promotion of personal resources may help to prevent the occurrence or minimise the consequences of workplace bullying and depression.”

(Again with the focus on “awareness”.  Awareness does not equate to action and it is action that reduces harm.  OHS professionals and policy makers must develop strategies to activate the awareness.)

The SWA report adds to our knowledge of the effects of bullying but surely there is already sufficient knowledge on this hazard for companies and governments to act.  Safe Work Australia’s draft bullying code of practice is a good place to start but ISCRR’s mental health and wellbeing guidelines are so much more useful.  A couple of examples of the guideline’s advice or findings:

“Being treated unfairly at work is linked to an increased risk of mental health problems.” (page 5)

“Being inadequately rewarded (e.g. wages, promotion, job security, positive feedback) for work efforts increases the risk of mental health problems.” (page 5)

“As part of their leadership role, senior management should hold supervisors and managers at all levels accountable for maintaining a mentally healthy workplace and encourage them to have an open and understanding attitude to what people say to them about the pressures of their work or other problems.” (page 3)

As with OHS/WHS legislative duties there are recommendations for employee actions on mental health and wellbeing so the load is not only on the shoulders of the business operators and employers.

The ISCRR guidelines deserve a great deal of attention, consideration and discussion.  They are the closest I have seen to anyone in Australia outlining a strategy that encompasses the range of mental health issues in Australian workplaces.  Significantly, the guidelines address mental health issues generated by work rather than the work impact of non-work related mental health issues, as was the focus several years ago.

ISCRR says these guidelines are the “first part of a major project led by the University’s Associate Professor Tony Lamontagne” (link added).  The next stages are eagerly anticipated.

Kevin Jones