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Tips for a mentally healthy workplace

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By Hugh Norris

Hugh Norris is a workplace wellbeing consultant and trainer and advisor to the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand (MHF) on mental wellbeing programmes. He has previously been the Director of Policy and Development at the MHF and has over 25 years’ experience in senior leadership roles across the mental health service sector.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy – contributing a significant amount to the wellbeing and prosperity of New Zealanders. Smaller workplaces employ a huge portion of Aotearoa’s 2.3 million workers and play a critical role in supporting positive workplace mental health. Over a third of New Zealanders have experienced significant mental distress, and of those people, 19% have reported being discriminated against. 50% of discrimination related to poor mental health occurs in the workplace.

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

Thriving, mentally healthy workplaces can be designed and developed through innovative and accessible learning and development programmes and inclusive, clear processes and policies. By embedding practical skills, knowledge, and confidence across your workforce, you can create an environment and culture where your people can stay well, ask for help and help each other.

While the places we work come in all shapes and sizes, mentally healthy workplaces have a few things in common:

  • They have a people-first culture that values people’s differences and doesn’t expect their employees to fit a particular mould. They celebrate different ethnic backgrounds, age groups, physical abilities and appearances, sexual identities and mental distress or illness experiences.
  • They have inclusive, clear processes and policies in place to employ and support people experiencing mental distress or illness, and protect all people from discrimination, harassment, and bullying.
  • They encourage and support their employees to stay mentally and physically healthy, using positive practical tools like the Five Ways to Wellbeing.

All workplaces have it within their power to create a highly inclusive and supportive environment for staff who experience poor mental health. Of course, being inclusive and supportive of people living with mental illness or distress isn’t just the right thing to do and required by employers from a duty of care perspective, it’s also beneficial from a business point of view and holds both financial and cultural incentives.

Tips for people managers to open the conversation about mental health

Mental health can be a tough conversation for people leaders to take on at work, but a bit of support and a positive attitude can get you a long way. Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Normalise mental health

Make talking about mental health an everyday thing with your team. Keeping the conversation alive and open in your workplace positively affects mental wellbeing.

It’s as easy as asking:

  • How are you doing?
  • How’s life? How’s the whānau?
  • You haven’t been yourself lately, anything up?
  • Work’s been pretty full-on lately, how’re you managing?

Encouraging your team to share how they boost and maintain their wellbeing (e.g. exercise, keeping up social connections, interests outside of work) can also help to keep the workplace mental health conversation positive and practical. 

  • Understand what support people need

Use the incredible power of focused listening and try not to jump to solutions. Put yourself in your staff’s shoes and hold off from judging them and their choices. Focus on what’s best for them rather than what you would do if you were in their situation.

Ask questions to explore what’s going on, like:

  • Have you spoken to anyone else about this?
  • What would be a good first step for us to take?
  • What has helped in the past?
  • What can we change to make life easier?
  • Problem solve together

Work together in a positive way to find solutions that work for you and your team member. Keep an open mind about what adjustments they might need to support their wellbeing. Make sure to check back in to see how they’re going.

Need guidance and support?

Implementing these tips can make a powerful change to create a more mentally healthy, thriving workplace for your staff. If you want to be equipped to better support your people, the Mental Health Foundation has a suite of resources and learning packages designed to encourage employers to take an active approach towards creating flourishing workplaces.

The Association recently shared another article from the Mental Health Foundation on avoiding Boss Burnout. You can view this article here.


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