Mental Health Awareness Day: An Interview with Organisational Psychologist, Justine McGillivray

Interview by Kathleen Haug, Marketing Specialist at Approach Services

World Mental Health Awareness Day is a day to increase education and fight social stigma to put mental health issues at the forefront of our conversations, particularly in the workplace.

There are 450 million people affected by mental health around the world, and 1 out of 4 people will experience it at some point in their life. A common place for mental health is unfortunately the workplace. In order to improve the wellbeing of people and organisations, we must understand the extent of the problem we are facing first.

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To get an expert on the topic, Justine McGillivray, WorkSafe WA and President at SIOPA, shares her expertise on the matter as an Organisational Psychologist in a recent interview we did together. Justine has extensive experience developing psychologically healthy and safe workplaces to prevent psychological injuries in the workplace and maximise organisational
performance.

It is with great pleasure to have interviewed Justine and be informed of her valuable insights into the current mental health climate in the Australian workforce. In this interview, she addresses stigmatism on mental health, workplace psychological hazards, emerging trends and gives her advice to help us build mentally healthy workplaces for the future of work.

K: Through your work as an Organisational Psychologist, how serious is the issue of mental health in the Western Australian workforce?

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J: Mental Health is a serious issue for all Australian workplaces. Approximately 6% of workers' compensation claims are for work-related mental health conditions, directly costing Australian workplaces approximately $543 million. The indirect costs of work-related mental health conditions are far reaching and difficult to estimate. When a worker experiences psychological harm to health from work, it can affect their work team, their family and their community due to the nature of mental health conditions.

The benefits of providing and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace significantly outweigh the cost of not providing one. The benefits include:

  • improved worker morale and engagement
  • decreased disruptions and costs resulting from work-related harm
  • improved performance and productivity
  • reduced worker turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism
  • enhanced organisational reputation as an employer of choice

The number of workers' compensation claims may seem insignificant in comparison to all other workers' compensation claims. However, when you compare the costs of the claims and the duration of time off work, you can see how important it is to address the issue of mentally healthy workplaces. The average compensation payment per claim for a work-related mental health condition was $24,500 compared to $9,000 for all claims, and the average time off work was 15.3 weeks compared to 5.5 weeks for all claims.

Aside from the cost, preventing harm to mental health and wellbeing is important because:

  • it’s the law – workplaces and management have an obligation to prevent harm to the
    health and safety of workers.
  • it’s the right thing to do – it is a social and corporate responsibility.
  • it’s the smart thing to do – making mental health a priority makes good business sense
    and contributes to a higher-performing Western Australian economy.

Leaders do not have to wait until there are signs of a mentally unhealthy workplace.

K: What are the common signs a workplace is suffering from mental health issues?

J: Leaders do not have to wait until there are signs of a mentally unhealthy workplace. Leaders can take a proactive and strategic approach to providing a mentally healthy workplace by making this issue a strategic priority for their organisation, committing resources and implementing actions and measuring their progress towards a mentally healthy workplace. A good place to start is conducting a risk assessment through analysing existing workplace data and consulting with your workforce about what is working well and what could be improved.

The signs and symptoms of a mentally unhealthy workplace may include:

  • an increase in reports of workplace bullying and conflict behaviours
  • an increase in workplace accident and incidents
  • an increase in reports of musculoskeletal disorders and work-related stress
  • an increase in absenteeism and turnover
  • a decline in organisational performance and productivity
  • increase in customer complaints
  • decline in staff morale

K: What workplace characteristics increase the risk of mental ill-health among workers?

J: Workplace psychosocial hazards are related to the psychological and social conditions of the workplace rather than the physical conditions. Workers are likely to be exposed to a combination of work-related psychosocial hazards and risk factors. These hazards include stress, fatigue, bullying, violence, aggression, harassment and burnout, which can be harmful to the health of workers and compromise their wellbeing.

There are also risk factors or workplace characteristics that typically contribute to the hazard and increase the risk of mental ill-health among employees. These are:

  • sustained and/or excessive physical, mental and emotional efforts required
  • low level of control over aspects of the work (how and when a job is done)
  • lack of support from supervisors and co-workers in the form of constructive feedback, problem solving, practical assistance, provision of information and resources
  • unclear or constantly changing management expectations about job responsibilities
  • incompatible expectations or demands placed on workers by different stakeholders
  • unstructured or poor change management including uncertainty about changes in the organisation, team or job
  • lack of positive feedback and inadequate skills development and utilisation
  • unfairness, inconsistency, bias or lack of transparency in the way procedures are implemented, decisions are made, or workers are treated
  • exposure to extreme environmental conditions that influence worker comfort and performance (i.e. extreme temperatures, noise and poor air quality)
  • remote work which creates an increase travel times, and difficulties in accessing resources and communications
  • isolated work which impacts on opportunities for social connectedness
  • exposure to behaviours that are unreasonable, offensive, intimidating or cause distress
  • exposure to an event, or threat of an event, that is deeply distressing or disturbing
  • experiencing mental or physical exhaustion (or both)
  • use of legal and illegal substances such as alcohol, prescription and non-prescription drugs that affect the ability to work
  • lack of physical activity and poor nutrition

While this list may seem overwhelming, leaders can provide a mentally healthy workplace through a committed, strategic approach, good work design and regularly consulting with their workforce to address any emerging issues early.

K: What kind of leadership do we need in today’s workplace?

J: To provide a mentally healthy workplace, leaders need to:

  • communicate and visibly demonstrate the commitment
  • promote a positive workplace culture and model the desired attitudes and behaviours
  • be consultative and collaborative with the workforce
  • have a supportive communication style
  • be skilled at having difficult conversations
  • empower supportive and capable line managers and supervision
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K: 1/3 of the Australian workforce are affected by mental health, yet there are many people who don’t seek help. How can we remove stigmatism in the workplace?

J: Stigma can be a challenge to developing and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace. Organisations that actively work at reducing stigma increase their likelihood of successfully providing a mentally healthy workplace. Through addressing the components that create stigma (knowledge, attitude, and behaviour), organisations can reduce stigma towards mental health. Knowledge informs attitudes and attitudes influence behaviour. All three need to be addressed in your stigma reduction strategy.

For example, leaders can address the component of knowledge about mentally healthy workplaces and mental health at work by providing accurate information and educating everyone on how to make a positive contribution. Leaders are the most influential person in an organisation and can influence the component of attitudes by a positive and supportive leadership style that communicates which attitudes are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace.

It is important to target attitudes because attitudes influence behaviour.

This can be achieved through formal documentation and verbal communication. However, the strongest influencer is through modelling the desired communication and attitudes. It is important to target attitudes because attitudes influence behaviour. As a business, make it very clear what behaviour is acceptable in the workplace and what behaviour is unacceptable.

K: The stigma on mental health seems to be worse for people in leadership roles because they fear losing their credibility. Have you observed this to be true? If so, what is your advice to people suffering in silence?

J: I have spoken with people in leadership roles who are concerned their professional reputation may be affected by disclosing they have a mental health condition and certainly this may have occurred 10 to 15 years ago. I believe the current climate has progressed significantly and the level of understanding and respect for people who are managing mental health conditions has increased. There are recent examples in the media of CEOs disclosing their mental health conditions to their workforce and the news has been received with respect and admiration. I encourage leaders to speak with their trusted peers, seek support from family and friends, and consult with their medical professionals.

K: What are the challenges the companies may face in handling workforce of Gen X, Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z.?

J: Research shows that while each generation has different influences, each generation typically wants the same things out of work. That is, to perform meaningful work in a supportive work environment where we feel valued and appreciated. I encourage employers to embrace the characteristics typical of Gen X, Y and Z which are confidence, hopefulness, goal and achievement oriented, community-minded and inclusiveness.

Organisations can do this by:

  • encouraging them to have a voice in the organisation by creating an environment where they feel safe to voice their concerns, ask questions and contribute ideas.
  • aligning organisational values and personal values to improve employee engagement. A positive workplace culture, can be developed which incorporates all of these values, will positively affect every employee’s commitment and well-being not just young workers.
  • consulting and communicating with them to involve them in decision making.

K: What are the emerging trends and challenges in organisational psychology?

J: The two major challenges in organisational psychology and for workplaces are:

  • The impact of technology on work and well-being. Technology can be a double-edged sword as there are positive benefits such as increased opportunities for engagement and there are negative benefits of increased work pressure and the potential for 24/7 access to work emails etc which interferes with rest and recovery from work.
  • The impact of the gig-economy on work and well-being and managing associated work-related conditions such as work-related stress, fatigue, and occupational violence and aggression.

K: What are 3 tips you can give on building psychologically healthy workplaces?

J: My top three tips would be to:

1
Develop

a strategic approach to providing a mentally healthy workplace.

2
Empower

supportive and capable line managers and supervisors.

3
Seek

expert advice, when you have reached the limits of your internal expertise.

K: How does industrial organisational I/O psychology apply in our workplace?

J: Industrial/ Organisational (I/O) Psychology is the scientific study of working and the application of that science to workplace issues facing individuals, teams and organisations. The scientific method is applied to investigate issues of critical relevance to individuals, businesses, and society (Source: SIOP). I/O Psychologists have a wide range of skills, knowledge and abilities that allow them to contribute effectively to improve organisational effectiveness and the quality of work life. I/O Psychologists can assist organisations with:

  • Change management
  • Coaching
  • Competency frameworks
  • Leadership and talent development
  • Occupational health and safety/ Organisational wellness/ Mental health in the workplace
  • Organisational design
  • Organisational development
  • Psychometric assessment
  • Strategy development
  • Team development/ Building effective teams
  • Training and development
  • Work Design

For more information about Industrial/Organisational Psychology and I/O Psychologists refer to https://siopa.org.au

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We want to acknowledge Justine McGillivray for collaborating with us on this important campaign raising awareness on mental health in the Australian workplace. If you would like to reach her directly, you can contact her on her LinkedIn account here. For health and safety concerns in the workplace, please visit WorkSafe WA and SIOPA to see how their services can help you. At Approach Services, we prioritise the well-being of our team and clients. We hope this article encourages you to take better actions towards a mentally healthy workplace. You can contact us directly for questions about the article or learn more about what we do on our website.

Kathleen is a marketing and events specialist. She loves interviewing leaders to share important messages. Her work has been featured in the Approach Services' blog and The 6 Cents of Change. 

To learn more about us and the solutions we provide, subscribe to The 6 Cents of Change, follow us on LinkedIn or connect with us here info@approach-services.com or +61 (08) 610 20 343.

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