The new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 commenced in April 2016 and it requires employers to recognise employees’ mental health when creating safe workplaces. The increased emphasis on mental health alongside physical health and safety is an important step in ensuring better awareness of, and support for, protecting New Zealanders’ mental wellbeing.

Mental ill health is extremely common in New Zealand. In any 12-month period, more than 20% of New Zealanders are likely to experience mental ill health; with 47% of New Zealanders likely to experience mental ill health at some point in their lives.  These figures include common experiences such as depression and anxiety (worrying too much) as well as more serious mental health concerns.

So what does this mean for New Zealand business and organisations?

For employees, it means that at any point in time some form of mental health issue may affect them, with research highlighting this could have direct negative consequences on their personal wellbeing and productivity. For organisations, this can mean costs resulting from increased absenteeism as well as reduced productivity from employees who are working whilst unwell.

However, this picture is not all doom and gloom. Research, plus our experience at Umbrella, has demonstrated that when we all have a greater awareness of mental health and its impact in the workplace, coupled with improved management of mental health at work, these consequences can be mitigated. Importantly, we can then also provide better support for employees to cope well with mental health issues. A work environment that supports employees’ wellbeing is better for us all, and for our loved ones. If it’s not an employee who is experiencing depression, for example, it might be his wife or his friend, so learning more about responding well to the mental health issues that affect one in five of us is crucial.

Considering this information, Umbrella strongly recommends that all employees are able to participate in training to raise their awareness of mental health and personal wellbeing. We also recommend that  people leaders participate in tailored training to improve how they manage employees who may be experiencing mental ill health.

In particular, early identification of wellbeing issues and careful intervention is key – we want to train managers to recognise declining mental health, and have the skills and confidence to respond. Picking up signs at early stages and connecting people with effective treatment is vital. Importantly, too, we need to acknowledge that mental ill health can impact all employees, including high-performing staff who can often mask signs of difficulty for prolonged periods.

Umbrella’s own research and knowledge gained from working with organisations highlights people often experience issues around mental health as either distressing, challenging, or both. Training that focuses on improving wellbeing and has a focus upon building resilience can help to:

  • reduce distress and worry around mental health issues
  • improve skill and confidence in responding well when issues arise
  • support prevention and early intervention/management
  • build a workforce that has reduced absenteeism and increased

It is also important to note that there is a strong business case for improving mental health at work. Well-engineered and organisation-specific training programmes have been shown to provide a significant return on investment (see for example Knapp et al., 2011).

Improving mental health is more than an absence of illness. It includes emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It determines our level of resilience, ability to enjoy life, capacity to make decisions and how we relate with others. Moreover, organisations that focus upon wellbeing promote a workplace that employees value.

Initiatives to improve mental health and wellbeing —not just respond effectively when there are mental health issues—are therefore also important. The 5 ways to wellbeing are simple but effective examples of practical ways to enhance mental health at work.

Umbrella partners with organisations to develop and implement wellbeing programmes to effect behaviour change at both an individual and organisational level. Behaviour change is the key to improving wellbeing and productivity in any business, whether in response to an experience of mental illness or as a proactive step to build mental wellbeing and resilience. Our goal is to help individuals and teams embed new knowledge and skills so that robust mental health becomes part of “business as usual”.

Knapp, M., McDaid, D. & Parsonage, M. (2011). Mental health promotion and prevention: the economic case. London, UK: Personal Social Services Research Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science.