More employers are beginning to embrace the mental health of their employees.
Many are training their workers in how to recognise the signs of mental health problems and how to intervene helpfully – just as they would if someone had a heart attack on the job.
Companies such as Lendlease are appointing mental health first-aid officers who can lead the response if someone shows signs of anxiety, depression or substance use; has a panic attack; or becomes psychotic at work.
The deputy chief executive of Mental Health First Aid Australia, Nataly Bovopoulos, says a mental health first-aid course teaches people how to approach someone thinking or acting suicidally; showing stress from a traumatic event or the severe effects of drug use; or behaving aggressively.
The course doesn’t aim to teach people how to be counsellors or mental health professionals, but how to keep people safe in crisis situations either until professional help can be found or until the crisis is resolved. The focus is on “nipping a mental health problem in the bud” before a crisis emerges.
For example, if someone is showing signs of depression – including persistent sadness or irritability, lack of energy, or difficulty concentrating – somebody should ask them privately if they are OK, the course suggests. They should then use the mental health first-aid guidelines to listen non-judgmentally and provide support, including finding professional help if necessary.
The course also gives pointers on what not to do and say. It warns people not to trivialise the person’s experience by telling them to “put a smile on their face”, “get their act together” or “lighten up”.
Geoff Dutaillis, head of sustainability at Lendlease, said his company had commissioned training after a survey showed that 16 per cent of its employees were at risk of depression and about 9 per cent felt stress related to work.
When employees were asked if they would like to become mental health first-aid officers, the response was overwhelmingly positive, he said. The group now has about 250 such officers, including some who have lived with experience of mental illness themselves. Mr Dutaillis expects the figure to double to 500 by next year.
“We can’t train people fast enough,” he said.
Ms Bovopoulos said about 2 per cent of Australian adults had been taught mental health first-aid since her organisation was started by mental health advocate Betty Kitchener, AM, 15 years ago. While the healthcare, education and public sectors had embraced it, she was now hoping industries most at risk of mental illness – such as hospitality, media, finance and insurance – would sit up and take notice.
“About 11 per cent of the population has a current first aid certificate, so we’re on our way – we hope to get to 5 per cent by 2020,” she said.
Research suggests millions of Australians take sick leave every year due to mental illness, costing the nation billions of dollars in lost productivity and compensation claims.
In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said 45 per cent of Australians aged 16-85 (or 7.3 million people) had had a mental disorder at some point their life.
TIPS FOR APPROACHING A COLLEAGUE YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT
- Choose a mutually suitable time to talk in a comfortable private space where you won’t be easily interrupted.
- Speak openly and objectively about your concerns.
- Use “I” statements such as “I have noticed … and feel concerned” rather than “you” statements.
- Let the person know you are concerned about them and are willing to help.
- If they want more help, encourage them to see their GP.
THINGS TO AVOID
- Telling them to “snap out of it” or “get over it”.
- Being over-involved or over-protective
- Nagging and talking in a patronising tone of voice.
- Belittling or dismissing the person’s feelings by saying things like “You don’t seem that bad to me”.
- Trying to cure the person or come up with answers to their problems.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 12 November 2015.