Staying sane

Mentally healthy workplaces are good for printers. It not only results in less absenteeism, more engaged workers and better productivity and morale, it also means there is less likelihood of workplace disability claims and fines for breaches of health and safety laws.

Mental health is no small problem. It is estimated that mental health issues can cost Australian business a staggering $12-13bn a year. Research conducted for Beyond Blue has found that more than six million working days are lost per year as a result of one mental illness alone – depression – and that each worker whose depression is untreated costs their employer $9660.

People experiencing symptoms of depression can be away from work more often than those with ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, back problems, lung problems or gastrointestinal disorders. Apart from depression uit is anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alcoholism, drug use disorder and bipolar disorder that would be the most common mental health issues.

All this inevitably spills over into the workplace.

Stress-related physical conditions such as high blood pressure, sleeping disorders and low resistance to infections can result in an increase in overall sickness absence. Work-related stress and poor mental health are major reasons not only for absenteeism but also for occupational disability and for workers seeking early retirement.

A recent Harvard University study examining the financial impact of 25 chronic physical and mental health problems found that workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost work days a year. Other research found employees with depression are more likely than others to lose their jobs and to change jobs frequently.

Mental illness in the workplace is estimated to cost Australian businesses a massive $6.5bn every year.

According to Comcare, the government agency responsible for workers compensation, one in five Australians will experience some form of mental disturbance each year. Depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), alcoholism, drug use disorder and bipolar disorder, would be the most common.

The stats reveal 45 per cent of all Australians will experience mental issues, like depression, at some stage of their lives. As many of us spend at least eight hours a day at work, there has to be some spill over. That means the workplace can heavily influence the health of workers and that has to affect the community.

Psychologically healthy workplaces are high functioning and productive zones.

Comcare points out that the workplace can trigger or worsen mental health conditions: “Just as good work can provide a sense of social connection that promotes mental health, poor health arising from job stress can be debilitating and isolating, but is largely preventable.”

Medibank Private estimates a total of 3.2 days per worker are lost each year through workplace stress and that stress-related worker’s compensation claims have doubled in recent years, costing more than $10bn each year. According to Comcare, one in five people in Australia will experience some form of mental disturbance each year.

So what can be done? The Australian Human Rights Commission has a report Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers recommending a number of steps. Managers can talk to the worker about the condition and offer the worker the option of bringing a support person to the meeting. All discussions at the meeting, held at an appropriate time and place, have to be kept strictly confidential. If the manager feels uncomfortable, they could bring in a health professional like a psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist. If the person doesn’t want to talk about it, they should ask if any they need any assistance. They can also change work schedules like providing more flexible work arrangements or changing aspects of their task. They also have to ensure that work colleagues are not overloaded with extra work.

However, it appears Australian managers are struggling to deal with this. A survey of 520 people by Australian mental health charity Sane found no support had been provided to them at work when mentally unwell, and less than half of managers (43 per cent) understood anything about mental health issues.

Given the importance of dealing with the issue for workplace productivity, it should be a top priority for managers.

This was the key discussion at a recent Printing Industries Association of Australia seminar where printers were told they could reap as much as $15 for every dollar they spend on minimising the impact of mental health issues among their employees

Mary Jo Fisher, the former Liberal senator who is now an advisor on workplace relations to the PIAA says it is not an issue peculiar to the printing industry – it’s there in every industry – but it’s one printers can’t ignore. Bosses who ignore it and tell their workers to sort themselves out in their own time are being “penny wise and pound foolish”.

“The stats are that for every worker with a mental illness untreated, they take three to four days a month and the absenteeism and lost productivity will cost the boss $9800, almost $10,000 in a year,’’ Fisher says.

“Unless you’re going to sack the worker, every day this is what they will cost you.

“That’s just the tangible cost and doesn’t take into account all the intangibles like the cost of an unfair dismissal claim if you do decide to sack them for the wrong reason or the cost of a workers’ comp claim if work is allowed to exacerbate it.

“Also when the person comes to work, they distract your other people. Your other people will know this person is taking sickies when there is no real reason for them to take it. It starts to hit morale. The cost of ignoring it is far greater than the stats.

“You can say to this person get over it and do your job but the fact is they’re not going to without treatment.”

The checklist for symptoms to watch out for include people feeling tired for no particular reason, or nervous, restless and fidgety. They can feel depressed and worthless to the point where nothing can cheer them up. And they can feel that everything is a real effort. They can’t seem to focus, there’s a loss of appetite, they can feel unusually irritable and angry or revved up, they are using alcohol or drugs to get by. They have trouble sleeping and they are always worried about something.

She says larger businesses can roll out measures like employee awareness programs, work life exercises and health checks, coaching and mentoring programs, and cognitive behavioural therapy-based return to work programs. These are expected to generate returns on investment of at least 2.3, or $2.30 for every dollar invested. In some cases, she says, the ROI could be $14-$15.

What can smaller printers do? She says the important thing for printers to recognise is that they are not psychiatrists.

“Find a way to approach and deal with the worker and refer them on to professional help,’’ she says. “Do not diagnose, do not counsel. You don’t want to know what might be causing these things for your employees. It’s something you can’t influence. What you can influence is how your worker presents for work and how they do their job.

“The thing that will give you payback is if you see the symptoms, you raise the issue with your worker and you’re able to have them get professional help. See if there is anything you can do to ameliorate the effects. To be perfectly frank, this is an investment in a particular worker.”

But then, she says the worker has to be worth the exercise. “If you have someone who has always been a crappy worker and they are exhibiting these symptoms, sometimes you can’t help somebody who won’t help themselves,’’ she says.

If you approach them and they won’t do anything, all you can do is performance manage. Or if they’re not getting any help, you may be better off without them.

“On the other hand if you have someone who is a fundamentally decent person and decent employee, that’s probably the person I would encourage the boss to have a shot at.”

Blue Star managing director Geoff Selig says his company is launching an employee wellness program which will tackle mental health. Blue Star has about 1000 employees.

He says that while the company is still working out how much it will cost, it is worth the investment.

“It’s hard to measure a return on investment because it’s not a traditional business case where you outline the costs of something and have a corresponding EBIT,’’ he says. “This is an initiative that we believe is important for our staff. There’s certainly a cost attached to it to implement it, but we see it as creating a better workplace and a better place for the employee.

“It has a positive cultural element to it where in any business you can only support a more productive environment.”

Globus Group chief executive Chris Burt says a number of his staff have battled mental problems over the years but it’s a difficult issue to tackle.

“You’re never quite sure what the causes are,’’ he says. “Very often the causes are outside the workplace so as an employer to what extent can you get involved, or should you get involved when it’s not a work related issue.

“If you start getting involved, you could be breaching privacy requirements or obligations.”

Burt says all the company can do is have a conversation with the staff member.

“The first way we would go about it would be to talk to their supervisor or manager to have a quiet word with them to see if everything is ok and to see if there is anything we can assist with,’’ he says. “Some people reach out and ask for assistance and other people say they will be ok and they are dealing with it.”

E-Bisprint managing director Paul Freeman says that he has experienced some instances where employees at his company have struggled with mental illness. A couple of instances are that one employee stole from the company due to a gambling problem, and another staff member committed suicide. Although this occurred six years ago, it can still have an ongoing effect on staff members.

“The effects of these occurrences don’t go away quickly. It was quite a shock at the time. He was highly strung. He was on his way out one night and mentioned to our HR lady he was feeling a bit under pressure and stress and he went home and committed suicide,” he says.

Freeman says the company now monitors its employees and watches out for tell-tale signs

“From a distance you monitor their behaviour, their punctuality and also absenteeism,’’ he says. “You just keep an eye on all that.”

In the end, he says, it comes down to having the courage to have a difficult conversation with an employee.

“We are certainly not afraid of having a conversation like that and finding what’s going on,’’ he says. “This way we can assist in any way that can ease the employee’s issues that are causing concern to them.”

Other things printers can do is bring in speakers to lead sessions on cooking healthy meals, staying healthy while travelling, or quick stress management skills; or running coaching and disease management programs that pair employees with online, phone-based, or face-to-face health professionals who can guide them through the steps of behaviour change.

There are some possible solutions to the problem. But the first and most important step is to acknowledge that mental health in the workplace is now an issue. It can’t be ignored.

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