Workplace mental health introduction: part one

Understand mental health and its role in the workplace.



How this helps your workplace

A mentally healthy workplace is good for business and has many benefits including increased productivity, improved organisational culture and reduced staff turnover. Preventing mental injury and promoting a mentally healthy workplace is also your responsibility as an employer or business leader (Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004).

Knowing where to start can feel overwhelming, but getting started doesn’t have to be.

This action is an introductory step and is designed to:

  • explain mental health
  • help you understand your obligations to not only support workers with personal mental health concerns but also prevent mental harm from occurring in your workplace

Do you need immediate help?

WorkSafe’s advisory service does not provide immediate or in-crisis support services.  If you, or someone else, is at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others please contact emergency services on 000 or for 24-hour 7-day telephone mental health support call:

Step 1

'Mental health' and 'mental illness'

Mental health refers to a state of wellbeing where everyone realises and understands their potential, can cope with normal stresses in life, works productively, and contributes to their community (World Health Organisation 2005). It’s about how we relate to other people, manage our emotions and generally navigate the demands of everyday life.

Positive mental health occurs when we are able to thrive, not just survive. Beyond personal resilience and self-care, mental health relies on a supportive, healthy environment that allows us to flourish.

A common misunderstanding is that mental health refers to the absence of a mental illness or mental health condition. However, mental health occurs on a sliding scale independent of whether you have a mental health condition or not, with healthy behaviours and positive functioning at one end through to unhealthy behaviours and difficulties functioning at the other end. You can have no diagnosed mental health conditions but still have difficulties with your mental health, and you can have a diagnosed mental health condition but manage it well and be mentally healthy. For example, you can be mentally healthy and still experience episodes of anxiety, sadness or low motivation, or you can suffer from a mental illness and still exhibit periods of energy, exuberance and calmness.

Mental illness or disorder

Living with a mental illness or disorder can increase the difficulty of managing the demands of everyday duties such as completing work or socialising with co-workers. Examples of mental illnesses include mood disorders like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, eating disorders and personality disorders.

Step 2

The role of the workplace

It’s estimated Australians spend a third of their life at work and even more if they own or run a business – which is why the workplace has such an important role to play in protecting, improving, supporting and promoting mental health.

But given mental health is complicated, and things outside of work can also impact our mental health, where does an employer’s responsibility start and stop?

As an employer, you have a legal obligation under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 to provide and maintain a safe working environment and systems of work and control risks to the physical and psychological health of workers so far as reasonably practical. Employers also have an obligation to consult with employees and health and safety representatives (if you have them) on matters that directly affect, or are likely to affect their health or safety.

The WorkWell Toolkit can help you to:

  1. understand workplace hazards
  2. assess risks to your staff’s mental health and wellbeing
  3. consult with your staff on matters that involve their health and safety
  4. implement changes; and
  5. review, revise and promote continuous improvements in your workplace

In simple terms, it’s your responsibility to create a workplace culture where workers feel supported, respected and safe to speak up. Many people experience poor mental health or even mental illness due to factors outside of work, and the workplace may have limited influence or input into these factors.  But is the employer’s responsibility to create a work environment that has clear systems of work that supports your workers to thrive in their role, makes reasonable adjustments for employees where needed, and ensures they leave work each day no worse than how they arrived.

Step 3

Mentally healthy workplaces

A mentally healthy workplace is one that has measures in place to prevent harm by identifying and controlling risks to mental health, managing harm from an early stage, and supporting recovery if harm occurs.

A mentally healthy workplace is one where:

  • mental health is everyone's responsibility
  • mental health is considered in every way you do business
  • everyone contributes to a culture where people feel safe and supported to talk about mental health
  • mental health support is tailored to meet the needs of individuals and teams
  • everyone can see that supporting workers’ mental health is a priority

Understanding the signs of a mentally healthy workplace is important in creating environments where your people and business can thrive together. There are a number of common factors which can be controlled and managed by employers to create a mentally healthy workplace and prevent mental injuries.

Knowledge check and next steps

Congratulations, you’ve almost completed part one of the introduction!

Let’s take a moment to recap your learning so far:

  1. Mental health exists on a sliding scale and is a constantly changing state of wellbeing.
  2. Mental health refers to how well a person is able to manage their thoughts, feelings and respond to their emotions, relate to others and meet the demands of their everyday life.
  3. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to protect and promote your workers’ mental health by providing a mentally healthy workplace.
  4. A workplace can have a positive or negative impact on a person’s mental health.

Next steps

  • Get started on Part two - Introduction: Factors which influence workplace mental health.
  • Sign-up for our regular newsletter.

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Disclaimer: The WorkWell Toolkit provides general information only. Please consider your specific circumstances, needs and seek appropriate professional advice.