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New Safe Work Reports: Mental Health is Indispensable in the Workplace

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When thinking about workplace health and safety, what usually comes to mind are things like heavy machinery or complicated security protocols. Most people’s thoughts don’t immediately jump to mental health. Back in June, we made the case for why business managers should prioritize a more holistic approach to health and safety and the advantages of both a wellness and a financial standpoint. Now, we can back that up even further with recently released data from Safe Work regarding productivity and mental health, bullying and harassment.

The two reports are part of the Australian Workplace Barometer, a longitudinal study that has been running since 2009.

The Psychosocial Safety Climate and Better Productivity in Australian Workplaces: Costs, Productivity, Presenteeism, Absenteeism report focuses on the relationship between a workplace’s psychosocial safety climate (PSC) and productivity. The main findings indicate that low PSC costs Australian employees up to $6 billion annually. Further, the productivity difference between workers in low PSC and those in high PSC environments is staggering. The report finds that employees in low PSC workplaces take 43% more sick days per month, and have a 72% higher performance loss, than those in high PSC workplaces. This translates to a financial loss of about $1887 per worker, per year.

One of the major causes of absenteeism as well as presenteeism (being physically present at work but not engaged) is depression. Depression alone is estimated to cost employers approximately $6.3 billion every year. Workers with severe depression take a significant number of sick days every year, around 20 times the average. This translates to a financial loss anywhere between $2,791 and $23,143 each year.

Although depression often originates not at work but in an employee’s personal life, it is certainly in an employer’s interest to maintain a higher psychosocial safety climate to avoid exacerbating the effects of depression. Forestalling the aggravating effects of the workplace on employee depression can be achieved through a healthy environment free of harassment, bullying, intimidation, cutthroat competition, and overwhelming pressure.

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The Bullying and Harassment in Australian Workplaces: Results from the Australian Workplace Barometer 2014/15 report focuses on identifying the prevalence of workplace bullying and harassment and attempting to identify the risk factors associated with these harmful behaviors. Researchers used two widely accepted definitions of bullying, an Australian one and an international one. Regardless of which definition was used, the self-reported rates of bullying in the workplace were roughly the same, at about 9.4 and 9.7 percent for each definition respectively. The research also measured the incidence of different kinds of harassment, finding the most common forms to be yelling and swearing (37%), public humiliation (23%), and physical assault or threats from patients or clients (22%).

Since this is a longitudinal study, it also tracks the rates of bullying and harassment over time. There has been an increase in the self-reported incidence of bullying and harassment over the 2009-11 data, when the rate was 7%. It is not fully clear whether this represents a true increase, or if workers are simply becoming more aware of what constitutes workplace harassment, as Safe to Work has rightly pointed out. Also notable is that 7% of respondents reported receiving negative comments based on their race or ethnicity, and 11% of respondents reported unfair treatment based on gender. Women were more likely to experience things like unwanted sexual advances and physical assault, whereas men were more likely to be yelled or sworn at. Being able to identify vulnerable demographics who may be a disproportionate target of unwanted behaviors can assist employers in implementing a more appropriate anti-harassment strategy.

The report also notes that such relatively high rates of bullying and harassment contribute to a poor psychosocial climate, which as we have mentioned, has tangible financial effects. The only way for organizations to improve the PSC of their workplace is through the active implementation of policies that directly target and aim to reduce risk factors that contribute to a poor psychosocial climate.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that while pointing out bad behaviors is simple enough, improving workplace mental health is no easy task. The work is rarely black and white and requires committed leadership and creativity. Sometimes the most unlikely approach can end up providing stunning results — like how these Louisiana oil rig workers reduced their workplace accident rate just by opening up about their feelings.

One method that Safe Work recommends improving workplace PSC is reducing or eliminating the pressures of a high-stakes work environment. In their words: “changing work conditions that predispose bullying such as high demand, high pressure, high competition, and low control/power situations in the workplace.” However you choose to improve mental health at your workplace, we’re glad you’re prioritizing it!

By Aja Cacan at

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