*This may be controversial* but… is “mental health” becoming the next excuse? Why employers are scared of the term…

DISCLAIMER: We are sharing common problems our clients experience. BespokeHR are not mental health or medical practitioners and any advice provided in these blogs do not take away the requirement to seek professional advice where required, and advise to seek further assistance via the links to resources at the end of this blog.

This month we’ve covered in our blogs the heartbreaking, and all-too-real condition that is mental illness. 

We’ve covered what it is, what it can manifest as, and how you as a business owner can take action on mental health crises in the workplace, as well as take care of your own mental health. 

We’ve also covered how common mental illness is in the workplace, with one in FOUR workers in Australia experiencing some form of mental health condition at some point in their lifetime.

We advocate through all of the work we do here at Bespoke HR for mentally healthy workplaces. 

First and foremost, let me disclose the following: this blog ABSOLUTELY does NOT downplay or dismiss the seriousness of those who are genuinely suffering from mental health issues. 

However, it is also important to share the other side so we can truly come up with practical solutions about how we can effectively impact mental health issues in the workplace. 

Say the words “Mental Health” in most organisations and I can almost always guarantee, most business owners would currently start panicking OR go straight into protection mode as they can sometimes feel as though the term is being used to threaten them in some way (which in some instances, sadly it is).

They may start thinking…

“Oh no, how much time are they going to need off?”

“I can’t handle any more last minute sick leave calls on a regular basis.”

“I don’t know what to do in a situation like this.”

“What if something happens to them and I’ll be responsible?”

Business owners may become too scared to provide any genuine feedback or performance discussions because they fear the ramifications, so instead – they do the WORST thing… and say nothing.

Juggling unplanned sick leave, team members having to leave early or coming in late, requesting excessive periods of time off (normally always around busy periods) are just some of the real issues that business owners are facing daily. 

They are also now even sadly starting to be threatened with “you can’t get rid of me as I have reported to you that I have mental health issues”

These are just some factors that we are starting to see leave a bad taste in business owner’s mouths, and unfortunately leave them questioning the validity of mental health claims.

On top of that, we are also seeing some very public examples where ‘mental health’ is now being used as an excuse to not take any personal responsibility and as an opportunity to blame anyone or anything else for poor behaviour.

This type of scapegoating is not just coming from workplaces, but being portrayed in the media, and from some of the country’s most prominent leaders.

One thing we’d like to educate employees and others on, is the flippancy in use of the term “mental health”.

It is becoming all too common for staff to make comments like “I am taking a mental health day,” when people are really taking a day to take stock of a few things.

“I have just been dumped / ghosted on Tinder….I need to take a few days to focus on my mental health,” is another common comment that employers are beginning to hear, causing them frustration and questioning around our general resilience level within society. 

“We are too scared to even have a joke around the office now in case we may offend someone and have them off work for the week on mental health,” said one business owner to me.

More significantly, poor performing or unaligned team members who may not be genuinely suffering from any real mental health issues are using it as a throw away line, which is damaging the drive for employers to take a proactive response to people who are truly suffering from mental health.

I am not sharing this in any way to not encourage people to speak out and seek assistance on mental health. 

I am a huge advocate for healthy workplaces and believe we have made some huge advances in the openness to the conversation around mental health in the workplace.

However, I am sharing regular real complaints we hear from employers to identify a balanced perspective so we can get proactively focused on solutions. 

Below are 8 things both employers and individuals can all do to help change the negative perception that can sometimes be apparent in the workplace relating to mental health. 

1. Encourage staff to get educated on what mental health is, and what mental illness is defined as. Stress the importance of using the term “having a mental health day” with tact, genuineness and how it impacts on people who legitimately cannot work because of a mental health condition. Team members, perhaps rephrase as personal or ‘me’ leave, reset time or a home productivity day as suggestions.  

2. Include topics like resilience, building skills in emotional regulation, taking ownership, effective communication and how to cultivate a positive work style in your internal training programs and/or lunch and learns or educational e-mail shares.

3. Communicate the process for how to report sick leave within your organisation and encourage staff to come to you early if they are struggling with the number of hours or starting/finishing times. To note as an example, first thing in the morning can often be a difficult time for people struggling with depression so a slightly later start time may assist with supporting them with their morning routines, exercise and getting to work on time. 

4. For team members. Where sick days are becoming the norm per week or predictable and/or you are out of sick leave (or close to it), get on the forefront and open up the discussion with your employer (which I know is difficult). More often than not, employers are after a guide on a time frame, want to acknowledge that you are aware of it and might be looking at steps to address it and/or are looking at how they are going to backfill or cover. If these questions can be answered and they have some time to plan this, you may end up identifying a solution that works for both parties. 

5. There’s a difference between a mental health condition and being misaligned in the work you’re doing. Let staff know that it’s OKAY to talk to you if they are dissatisfied with work or are struggling in a particular area. The sooner you can truly identify the root cause of an issue, the quicker you can get a staff member looking in the right direction.

6. Have numbers like the Emergency Numbers provided in prior blogs accessible and encourage team members to seek assistance to help identify what it may be. The sooner it can be identified, the sooner a possible solution or assistance may be sort. 

7. Encourage a healthy workplace. Offer regular health challenges and encourage a focus on sharing tools and strategies supporting wellness. 

8. Self-Care. While employers do have responsibilities for providing safe workplaces, there is a lot that individuals may also do themselves to keep themselves healthy including regular exercise routines, nutrition, sleep, meditation, mentors and/or having good friends around that are supportive. 

For more information and resources see below:

Lifeline: Ph: 13 11 14 W: www.lifeline.org.au

Beyond Blue: Ph: 1300 22 4636  W: www.beyondblue.org.au

The Black Dog Institute: W: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au

Safework SA Mental Health Resources: W: www.safework.sa.gov.au/health-safety/health-wellbeing

Mental Health Emergency Line: Ph. 13 14 65 or in case of an emergency requiring immediate assistance, call 000

Ready to get started on building an award-winning culture?

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  1. Take the Culture IQ Test – this is a simple, free 10 minute, comprehensive assessment of your business that covers 13 critical areas that make up an organisation’s culture. How do you rate?
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  3. Start the 90 Day Culture Accelerator – which covers the 4 critical areas of business: DEFINE, ATTRACT, MANAGE & GROW. These areas have the highest yielding impact on your profits, people and productivity.
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