Health and Safety

Mental Health and wellbeing under the spotlight

June, 2021

By: Jason Tuck

EMA consultant

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Mental wellbeing is not a matter of luck but a matter of design. It requires a deliberate effort to control psychosocial risks and build in the protective factors associated with ‘good work’.” – Dr Hillary Bennett, Director, Leading Safety

Mental harm is increasing due to modern work practices and the 2019 NZ Wellness in the Workplace survey found stress reported by staff had risen 23.5% since 2017. Absenteeism from work-related stress had increased from 6.4% in 2016 to 22.2% in 2018 and heavy workloads were the biggest issue across businesses of all sizes, while personal relationships at work were a key factor for smaller businesses.

WorkSafe NZ’s Segmentation and Insights Programme (2019) found that in the previous 12 months, 20% of respondents had experienced depression, 32% anxiety, and 60% stress.

Mental harm is costly for individuals and organisations and according to the 2020 NZ Workplace Barometer, 69.6% of respondents reported an absence from work during the last 12 months due to ‘physical or mental health’ issues.

COVID-19 placed this important issue even further under the spotlight.

As employers and managers, your actions in the workplace may increase, or decrease the state of your employees’ mental wellbeing. For most of us, work is a key part of our lives and our identity, so it’s important to remember that it can also be a great source of stress for many people.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers.  This duty applies to workers while they are at work, or while workers are carrying out work which is influenced or directed by their employer.

Employers also have a duty to not, without proper cause, act in a manner calculated to or likely to, destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence.

These obligations apply not only to an employee’s physical safety, but their mental safety as well.  Thus, as an employer it is important to be alert to situations in the workplace that may affect your employees’ mental well-being and to take active steps to prevent such harm.

Often, alleged breaches of employer’s duties come in the form of bullying, discrimination and harassment cases. If you become aware of a situation involving allegations of this nature, it is critical that you take appropriate steps to investigate and address the situation. An employer who fails to adequately address such complaints, can contribute to an employee’s mental health issues, even though it may not be intended.  The effects can be far-reaching, even extending into the employee’s personal life.

As such, it is important for employers to adequately respond to complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination. You can address this in part by demonstrating compassionate leadership – reminding employees that there is support available.  This is important at any time, but particularly in the current climate, where there is still a level of uncertainty due to reviews and restructuring as a result of COVID-19 disruption to business. Providing a workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP), other mental well-being services and in some cases financial support and outplacement service, are all relevant.

If you would like more information on programmes to support mental health in the workplace or facing a claim from an employee based on mental health issues, please feel free to contact me.

Jason Tuck is an EMA HR and ER Consultant. Phone 021 992 192 or email: Jason.Tuck@ema.co.nz

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