Mental Health Series- A whole person approach to a mentally healthy workplace

First let me start with a few facts. Mental illness affects 1 in every 5 Australians, it affects people's ability to fully function at work and it is often a very treatable condition.


With this in mind it is highly likely that anyone reading this either has a mental health condition or is working with someone who is suffering from a mental illness. I wonder how many people would recognise that they are working with a person who has a mental illness? If you're one of the few who would be able to recognise this would you feel comfortable starting an are you ok conversation? If you had this conversation and detected some problems do you have the right support mechanisms in place to assist you and your co-worker? Would your co-worker feel they could openly talk about their illness? Are you supportive to the problems they face and do you really understand their illness?


A Case for Effective Mental Health Programs

The case for effective mental health programs is indisputable, mentally healthy, engaged and resilient workforces are more profitable in terms of productivity, loyalty, retention, and sustainable performance.

Thankfully we are seeing more and more organisations putting mental health to the top of their wellbeing agendas, however effectiveness of programs vary widely with many employers struggling to implement solutions that have any real impact. This is reflected in the alarming statistics we are currently seeing in this space. With 20% of the Australian population experiencing mental illness each year organisations can no longer afford to merely tick a box or put mental health in the too hard basket. They must examine the problem and implement effective solutions. 

To ensure programs are sucessful it is critial that the whole person is planned for any wellbeing strategy. A one-dimensional approach neglects the physical health needs of people with mental illnesses and equally disregards the mental health needs of people with physical health problems.

The whole person comes to work and all facets of their wellbeing are affected by their work. So why, despite all we know are we still seeing isolated programs that only deal with single aspects of health and wellbeing with a tendancy to be aimed only at the physical elements?

It is essential that mental wellbeing is put on a par with physical wellbeing and the intrinsic link between the two is recognised. Put simply, good mental health underpins a persons overall wellbeing and to be mentally healthy we must enjoy a good level of wellbeing across all areas. So how does this work and does one not contradict the other? 

To examine this more closely lets look at stress and insomnia. Stress and anxiety can manifest themselves as insomnia, with many sufferers having difficulty sleeping. While insomnia can result in people experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Therefore a sleep program that does not integrate or deal with the mental health aspects of wellbeing will be largely ineffective. 


3 Key Aspects of a Successful Mental Health Program

Imagine a workplace where positive actions toward mental health are part of the culture, mental ill health is understood, stigmas do not exist and wellbeing initiatives are designed for the whole person. It is hard to understand why this is not a realitiy in all work environments when we know mental illness affects so many of our people, is largely preventable and has a negative impact on business performance.

To ensure workplace efforts advocating a whole person approach to wellbeing are successful we must also actively and deliberatly incorporate programs that promote a positive culture, destigmatisation and prevention. 

Driving a culture where mental health is prioritised cannot be achieved where it is an add-on but only when it is a fundamental part of how a business is run. Unless leaders visibly act to promote good mental health, any efforts in this space will be undermined. It’s our leaders who have the ability to empower individuals and create environments that go from surviving to thriving.

Stigmas are a result of stereotypes and negative perceptions and are often associated with mental health conditions. Stigmas can occur both externally and internally (self-stigma), and are a major barrier that prevent individuals from seeking help. 

Prevention and early intervention are the most effective ways to support mental health, rather than tackling problems after they arise. Providing the right range of support, including prevention, can turn the tide of the mental health crisis we are currently facing. 

Shifting organisational structures and mind-sets requires a coordinated and concerted effort, from strong leadership at the highest level, all the way through to health and wellbeing professionals working with your employee population. It is essential to ensure organisational culture is conducive to good mental health if the whole person is to be supported. 


The responsibility for action lies with everyone, not just governement and employers. Knowledge and breaking down stigmas can have a tremendous impact on how individuals and communities deal with mental health conditions. The most tragic consequence of not getting this right is suicide. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community”. This in a nutshell is surely what every organisation aspires for their people, and it can be acheived when workplace inititiaves are well planned, proactive and encompass the whole person. 

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