We all know the stats and most, if not all of us have been exposed to mental illness in some shape or form. We sat down with Nina, our head Mental Health Trainer, to pick her brains on all things mental health; What are the industry leaders doing? What are the key messages organisations are trying to send? How is the information being received by frontline workers? Here’s what she had to say.
Nina, you have been facilitating mental health courses for a number of years now. How has the space evolved over the past 2 years?
Up until recently, the disarming stigma associated with mental health and the lack of general awareness around it has meant a reluctance in organisations to allocate time, funds and resources to help create awareness and empower employees to recognise and manage poor mental health in themselves and others.
The reality is, many Australians experience a mental illness at some point in their lives and almost every Australian will experience the effects of mental illness in a family member, friend or work colleague.
As we become more and more aware of the societal and financial costs of mental illness, forward thinking HR and business leaders are spearheading initiatives to improve mental health in the workplace. Businesses are now recognising that having mentally healthy workplaces makes perfect business sense as in Australia alone, the cost of mental health problems to organisations is $10.9 billion dollars annually. With this, and the birth of new government programs such as Safe Work NSW’s Mentally Healthy Workplace Initiative, businesses are being afforded the support and tools to help create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the demand for mental health training for all staff, including managers and people leaders.
Whilst many organisations are at the beginning of their mental health journey, the future is looking far brighter for the one in five employees who experience poor mental health every year.
What are the industry leaders doing to stand out in this space?
The industry leaders understand that creating a mentally healthy workplace is more than just a barbecue event on R U OK Day. They are committed to developing long term strategies which are underpinned by sound policies and procedures that are unique to their workplace and work culture. This includes a genuine commitment to promoting mental wellbeing, supporting people who are experiencing a mental health issue and reducing the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Successful and effective workplace mental health programs are about more than just providing employee with access to an Employee Assistance Program, which traditionally include free, confidential counselling sessions either over the phone or in person.
Forward-thinking organisations recognise that an employee’s mental health and ability to ‘perform’ is reflective of their whole life, including what takes place outside the traditional 9-5 work hours. The progressive organisations understand the need to offer programs that target the whole person, including resilience training, health and wellbeing programs and in some cases financial support.
What I have consistently seen with workplaces that epitomise a mentally healthy culture is 3 critical factors:
- Commitment from senior organisational leaders and business owners.
- Employee participation and maximum engagement through the provision of safe forums (it’s important to have a culture where people trust each other).
- Ongoing communication to ensure all staff have a sense of ownership around changes and decisions and a willingness to speak openly about mental health concerns and emotions.
Based on your experience, what are the key things that lead to a successful mental health course or program? i.e. Management participation, sharing of personal stories?
My perception is that a successful course is a shared responsibility and that responsibility begins with me setting realistic expectations for all participants. Although the courses are educational in nature, the topics at hand can be rather confronting and can trigger a variety of emotions, particularly if someone in the room has been affected by suicide.
There is a fine balance between providing an interesting and informative course on mental health and managing people’s unpredictable reactions and emotions. When facilitating a course it’s so important for me to set up a safe, private and confidential environment where people feel supported. For some participants, this might be the first forum where they have had the opportunity to share a personal story and I have to remain acutely aware of that. Although I don’t force people to share their personal stories, I do encourage them to do so if they feel comfortable and my motto is ‘we leave the stories in the room and we take the learnings away.’ Stories can really help to colour and contextualise the topics.
Aside from that, I remind the participants that it’s up to them as to how much they want to get out of the session. The more they put in, the more they get out of it.
When you personally feel stressed or feel like you are under pressure mentally, what’s your go to method for details with the situation?
This is an ever-evolving aspect of my life! I have always been big on exercise as a means to burning up stress hormones but when I was pregnant with my now 2-year old, I quickly learnt that I didn’t have enough tools in my bucket. I’m pretty competitive by nature and when I could no longer workout at the intensity I was used to, I just stopped exercising. It took a huge toll on my mental health. Being in that position really forced me to re-evaluate some of my proactive stress management strategies and so I switched to chocolate and KFC buckets.
It’s important for me to know when I’m edging towards a level of stress that is unproductive so nowadays, my tool bucket looks like this:
- Any type of exercise but mainly Crossfit
- Speaking openly about my emotions to anyone that will listen (including my cat)
- Recalibrating expectations and cognitive reframing
- Practising Mindfulness
- If all else fails, chocolate. Have ditched the KFC buckets.
If there was one piece of advice that you would give to someone who was struggling what would it be?
It takes courage to be vulnerable and it’s important to validate what you are feeling is very real. If you are not already seeking treatment, my advice would be to reach out and seek the advice of a professional such as a GP or a psychologist. Effective help is available and most people recover from mental health problems and go on to lead satisfying lives.
You are about to present at the Occupational Health Physiotherapy Conference in New Zealand, can you tell us a little bit about your presentation?
Apart from being very excited that I get the opportunity to speak about my passion in front of my colleagues, the focus of my presentation will be ‘Mentally Healthy Workplaces – Taking Action to Create Change’. My presentation will be about broadening the physiotherapy profession’s understanding of the role of mental health in the workplace. Specifically looking at the prevalence of mental health issues and some of the more common issues we are seeing, workplace risk factors for developing mental health problems in the workplace and the factors that differentiate mentally healthy workplaces from mentally unhealthy workplaces.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If someone is in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).