Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, contributing significantly to the wellbeing and prosperity of New Zealanders. Smaller workplaces employ a huge portion of Aotearoa's 2.3 million workers and play a critical role in supporting positive workplace mental health. Over a third of New Zealanders have experienced significant mental distress; of those, 19% have reported being discriminated against, with half of this discrimination occurring in the workplace.
What is a mentally healthy workplace?
Thriving, mentally healthy workplaces can be designed and developed through innovative and accessible learning and development programmes. By embedding practical skills, knowledge and confidence across your workforce, you can create an environment and culture where your people can stay well, ask for help and help each other. While the places we work come in all shapes and sizes, mentally healthy workplaces have a few things in common:
- They have a people-first culture that values people’s differences and doesn’t expect their employees to fit a particular mould. They celebrate different ethnic backgrounds, age groups, physical abilities and appearances, sexual identities and mental distress or illness experiences
- They have clear, inclusive processes and policies in place that employ and support people experiencing mental distress or illness, and protect all people from discrimination, harassment and bullying
- They encourage and support their employees to stay mentally and physically healthy, using positive practical tools such as the Five Ways to Wellbeing (https://mentalhealth.org.nz/five-ways-to-wellbeing)
Benefits of supporting staff mental health
All workplaces have it within their power to create a highly inclusive and supportive environment for staff who experience poor mental health. Of course, being inclusive and supportive of people living with mental illness or distress isn’t just the right thing to do and part of an employer’s duty of care, it’s also beneficial from a business point of view and holds both financial and cultural incentives.
When we make people feel they are valued and they belong, we invite them to reach their potential and to achieve great things for our organisations. People who have experienced mental illness or prolonged distress can be more emotionally aware and empathetic and have valuable insights based on their experiences. People who have lived with mental distress are already working effectively at all levels of seniority, in many different organisations around New Zealand and the world.
Starting the mental health conversation
Mental health can be a tough conversation to take on at work, but a bit of support and a positive attitude can get you a long way. Normalise the subject by making talking about mental health an everyday thing with your team. Keeping the conversation alive and open in your workplace positively affects mental wellbeing. It’s as easy as asking, ‘How are you doing?’; ‘How’s the whānau?’; ‘You haven’t been yourself lately; anything up?’ or ‘Work’s been pretty full-on lately; how are you managing?’
Encouraging your team to share how they boost and maintain their wellbeing (eg. exercise, keeping up social connections, interests outside of work) can also help keep the workplace mental health conversation positive and practical.
Understanding people are different
Listen and try not to jump to solutions. Put yourself in your staff’s shoes and hold off from judging them and their choices – focus on what’s best for them rather than what you would do if you were in their situation. Ask questions such as: ‘Have you spoken to anyone else about this?’; ‘What would be a good first step for us to take?’; ‘What has helped in the past?’; ‘What can we change to make life easier?’ Keep an open mind about what adjustments they might need to support their wellbeing and check back to see how they’re going.
Open Minds e-learning package
The Mental Health Foundation has launched a free e-learning package aimed at managers and leaders. Open Minds consists of three e-learning modules, including practical guidance to empower business owners to make their workplaces supportive of mental health. You’ll learn how to make these conversations easier, support staff going through tough times and understand the critical role you play as a leader in creating a more mentally healthy team around you - www.learnmhf.nz.
Hugh Norriss is a workplace wellbeing consultant and advisor to the Mental Health Foundation. He was previously the director of policy and development at MHF and has over 25 years’ experience in senior leadership roles across the mental health service sector.