It’s no question that employers have more hats, more obligations, and more things to think about in 2023 than ever before. In recent months, many of my clients have expressed growing concern over mental health in the workplace, their obligations, and strategies for addressing these issues.
It has always been important for employers to cultivate a safe work environment for all employees. This means taking consistent measures to prevent physical injury, illness, and even mental health issues that may arise in the workplace. It is not only a moral obligation, but also a legal responsibility for employers.
Employers’ responsibilities for physical and psychological safety
As employers, we have a duty to identify and assess any potential hazards that may exist in our workplace. In the workplace health and safety world, this would be done through risk assessments.
Assessing potential physical hazards such as machinery, equipment or environmental dangers like poor air quality, is something we are familiar with.
Employers would carry out a risk assessment and then take mitigating actions such as providing protective equipment, implementing safety protocols and ensuring proper employee training.
The complexity of psychological safety
However, addressing psychological safety in the workplace is a more complex challenge.
Psychological safety refers to an environment in which employees feel secure taking risks, expressing their ideas and voicing concerns without fear of retribution. A psychologically safe workplace promotes employee engagement, and innovation, and ultimately enhances productivity, creativity, and overall job satisfaction.
Recent legislative changes around mental health
In Australia, recent legislative changes have been introduced to support psychological safety in the workplace. The Work Health and Safety [WHS] Act 2011 now includes provisions for psychological health and safety, defining psychological health as ‘a state of being free from harm including mental harm’ and psychological safety as ‘the absence of unacceptable psychological risks’.
Employers in Australia are now legally obligated to provide a work environment free from risks to the psychological health and safety of their employees. This involves identifying and assessing potential psychological risks, implementing strategies to eliminate or control these risks, and regularly reviewing and monitoring the effectiveness of these strategies.
In saying that, you need to follow fair work processes when it comes to underperformance and termination. Ask for some advice before you action a termination for underperformance.
Key risk assessment elements
As an employer, there are several key elements to consider when conducting a risk assessment to foster a safe and supportive work environment:
- Culture Review: Examine the values, norms, and beliefs embedded within the organisation, and assess whether they promote employee comfort and safety.
- Communication: Evaluate the frequency, availability and quality of communication within the workplace.
- Leadership: Analyse the effectiveness of leadership and the level of trust employees have in their leaders.
- Feedback: Assess the feedback processes for employees including their effectiveness and whether appropriate actions are taken in response.
- Performance Management: Ensure that performance management processes are consistently fair and supportive.
- Workload and Work-Life Balance: Regularly assess employee workloads, hours, and flexibility to promote a healthy balance.
- Harassment and Discrimination: Continuously evaluate the company culture and ensure that policies and training are in place to prevent harassment and discrimination.
- Mental Health Support: Assess the availability and quality of mental health resources available to employees.
- Training and Development: Ensure that employees receive adequate training to succeed in their roles.
As employers, it is essential to consult with employees on these matters and fulfil the obligations necessary to create a safe and productive work environment.
Zoning in on mental health
Mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety, depression and burnout, are commonly encountered in the workplace.
Other than carrying out a risk assessment that will identify any areas of the business that may be more susceptible to issues, employers can do a few simple things such as:
- Cultivate a supportive work culture where employees feel at ease discussing their mental health concerns without fearing stigma or discrimination.
- Train a select group of individuals in Mental Health First Aid, which serves as a triage approach like traditional first aid. Equipping these employees with simple strategies can significantly benefit others in need.
Employee Assistance Programs
Another effective way for employers to support mental health is by providing access to resources, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offering counselling services. EAPs are not necessarily expensive so don’t dismiss them due to cost concerns; there are various services that cater to small business owners.
Additional mental health initiatives
Additional initiatives that can be readily implemented include mental health days, strategies for promoting work-life balance, workload assessments, and encouraging employees to take regular annual leave.
Privacy and confidentiality
While fostering an open culture around mental health is essential, it is equally important to have employee privacy and confidentiality policies in place to protect the disclosure of mental health concerns. This means that managers and supervisors must be trained to address mental health issues appropriately.
Although addressing mental health in the workplace may seem daunting, implementing a few straightforward strategies can make a significant difference.
general advice disclaimer
The information provided on this website is a brief overview and does not constitute any type of advice. We endeavour to ensure that the information provided is accurate however information may become outdated as legislation, policies, regulations and other considerations constantly change. Individuals must not rely on this information to make a financial, investment or legal decision. Please consult with an appropriate professional before making any decision.
About the author:
Anna Chipperfield is the Director of People + Culture at businessDEPOT.