Feature article

Employers who support their staff’s mental well-being

Our latest data shows the importance of mental wellbeing support in the workplace, here's how to embrace it.

After a global pandemic, natural weather disasters and a cost of living crisis, mental health support is an increasingly important benefit an employer can offer their staff in 2023.

The Trade Me 2023 Employer & Job Hunter report has found that stress and burnout were some of the main reasons for staff churn, with 33% of job hunters leaving their previous role due to a lack of flexibility, unhappiness and burnout.

Burnout was affecting Gen Z (18-26 year olds) more than any other age group, our research found.

Flexibility in the workplace might be a good starting point to curb the effects of this, employers told us.

And employers are taking note - mental health is something companies are focusing on increasingly as a staff benefit. Among the 467 Kiwi employers and recruiters surveyed, 32% said they offered some form of mental health support to their employees.

Another reason for this uptick in mental health support is The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (which came in in April 2016) required employers to protect employees’ physical and mental health when creating safe workplaces.

Organisations are providing Employee Assistance Programmes to their staff which may come in the form of confidential counselling; but there’s a whole industry of workplace wellness providers helping organisations do a lot more.

“It used to be that workplace safety and health was about wearing a hard hat, then the definition of health and safety changed to become mental as well as physical health, so there’s been a flurry of interest and action by organisations,” says Dr. Dougal Sutherland, CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing.

Umbrella’s research says that a range of workplace issues like high workload, role ambiguity, electronic monitoring of employees and toxic cultures can contribute to staff distress levels and are seen as “psychosocial risk factors.”

Mental ill health is extremely common in NZ, according to Te Hiringa Hauora, the Health Promotion Agency. In any 12 month period more than 20% of New Zealanders are likely to experience mental ill health, and 47% of New Zealanders are likely to experience mental ill health at some point in their lives. This might be depression and anxiety, or other serious mental health concerns.

Mental health challenges can originate from workplace issues, or they may impact employees in their work environment. In this case, it might manifest as a supervisor who’s drinking too much and not realising it’s getting out of control; or a worker experiencing grief after loss which has turned into clinical depression. It could also be a staff member whose eating disorder is hidden at work but it’s resulting in low energy and high fear.

There’s a strong argument for taking mental health support seriously as an employer, say workplace wellbeing companies. Organisations risk losing talented staff through stigma, stress and distress and are more likely to see team resilience and innovation suffer, says Umbrella. A workplace that supports staff mental health has benefits like improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism (where people show up to work unwell) and higher staff retention.

Outsourcing is not always the solution

And while help through an Employee Assistance Programme is a good first step, companies need to be thinking more broadly than that, says Dr Sutherland. There’s a more preventative element to consider, which is about training and enhancing skills for people leaders, managers and employees.

“You can’t just outsource it. If you think of the parallel of physical health, if a staff member said, ‘I’m worried about the slippery area in the kitchen or tiles falling,’ you wouldn’t expect the manager to say go and talk to a builder,” explains the clinical psychologist. Don’t put the responsibility all on the person.

“We would say it’s 50% the individual's responsibility and 50% the employer’s,” he adds.

Umbrella provides mental health resilience training to individual employees and also to managers. If an individual goes to the manager when they’re really stressed, the manager has to know how to support someone going through a tough time, to support a person who’s depressed at work.

What can the organisation do? “They can look at workflow for people, it’s not only about preventing mental health problems, it’s helping them thrive at work,” says Dr Sutherland. Many of the factors that cause a person stress at work are out of an employees’ hands, he notes.

Creating an environment of trust

Dr Sutherland talks about the importance of psychological safety, company leaders creating a workplace where staff feel comfortable being and expressing who they are, and an ethos where it’s okay to make mistakes.

It’s a place where you trust each other and leaders have some level of emotional intelligence. “If employees approach them about a difficult subject, they’re not going to throw a stapler at their head,” explains Dr Sutherland.

So it’s about establishing an environment where leaders are emotionally predictable and, for some, that means doing some skill-building. “Workplace bullies are stressed and busy and make off-hand comments that if they weren’t so busy they might be able to stop,” says the Umbrella chief executive.

Dr Sutherland has noticed a developing awareness of the importance of workplace cultures and how an organisation is set up to cater to individual wellbeing.

Umbrella encourages organisations to develop a language or words that work for them to help articulate how staff members are feeling at any given time.

He worked with a winery where if someone was doing well they’d be having a “champagne day”, if it was a bit ho-hum, it was a “rosé day”, and if they were feeling terrible, it was an “ale” day.

“They developed that themselves so they had a language in their organisation to make those conversations easier to have,” says Dr Sutherland.

Business owners predict more wellbeing challenges ahead

As the country moves into some difficult financial times in the next year, there’s going to be more stress ahead for business owners with staff feeling the pinch and struggling financially.

Chief executive of The Icehouse, Liz Wotherspoons says wellbeing has always been part of the Icehouse’s underlying philosophy in supporting business owners and entrepreneurs it works with.

“What we’ve seen in the last three years, given the unprecedented situation from Covid and weather challenges, is businesses waking up to the need for empathy and compassion and a greater focus on wellbeing,” she says. This has led to a higher level of communications on how staff are doing, and being aware of signs for people who aren’t coping.

You can have an employee assistance programme (EAP), but there need to be conversations and for leaders to be equipped with skills to have those conversations, says Liz.

“You can quickly get out of your depth, and that’s not good for you or for them, “adds The Icehouse CEO.

“A big message for us is to be consistent. And it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help whether business or personal and wellbeing, that’s okay,” says Liz.

The important thing is communication, says Liz. You can’t over-communicate. People don’t have to have all the answers to be a communicator.

The Icehouse brings in Dr Sven Hansen from The Resilience Institute to work with business owners and their staff on wellbeing.

Dr Hansen, helps his clients work on understanding and building a common language for mental health, wellbeing and resilience. He believes in being evidence-based and practical.

The resilience expert deplores some of the language around mental health in the workplace. He doesn’t like the word ‘burnout’. It’s an organisational syndrome, not an individual diagnosis, he says.

At times what is termed as burnout will just be fatigue, it could be down to simple lifestyle discipline and therefore low energy, or it could be depression.

Mental wellbeing of young people declining

Dr Hansen’s research over the past decade supports the Trade Me findings that younger people are those struggling the most with their mental health and wellbeing in the workplace right now.

His research shows that the mental wellbeing of people under 30 has declined significantly in the past decade.

“The wellbeing, resilience and productivity of young employees is an ongoing concern for organisations. Despite significant research, investment and a plethora of treatments,we aren’t reversing this trend, “ he says.

“Our research has consistently shown that the resilience ratio and profile of people under 30 is lower than any other age group by a significant margin. Females under 30 are the most at risk, scoring lower on fitness, tactical calm and bounce than young male participants.”

Young workers are experiencing sleep delay, worry, anxiety, indecisiveness and uncertainty. Emotional agility, assertiveness and sleep quality are lower for younger females than males while compassion, emotional insight and positivity are slightly higher among young women.

Meanwhile younger employees need help developing their mental skills – how to master worry, rumination, uncertainty, boredom, anxiety and indecisiveness.

Organisations have got to be practical, not frightened, but enabled, in the way they approach helping their young employees, says Dr Hansen. Pressure in the workplace is very intense and uncertain and a rich breeding ground for anxiety, he says. That makes the onboarding process very important. With this, every employee needs some kind of briefing on the world it is we’re living in, he says.

Managers have to walk a fine line, be respectful, listen with empathy, not prejudge, have boundaries, and provide support in the right way, explains Dr Hansen. Leaders and managers must take responsibility for understanding this risk and managing those who may be more vulnerable, he says.

The Resilience Institute founder thinks businesses may be moving to a time when organisations behave a bit more like sports teams. Where staff are supported by an in-house coaching team –with a manager, a head coach, a physio and a nutritionist all working hard to help executive “athletes” be in their best state.

“They can be in there checking on people, accommodating different styles of working for these athletes of the modern workplace who are in high demand,” he explains.

The benefits of true benevolence

Most people in leadership roles feel they’re there to solve problems for the organisation, says Gus McIntosh, chief executive of Winsborough, a leadership and assessment company. They have a tendency to want to fix things when their people falter.

“The right thing to do as a human being is to ask the question, ‘How are you doing?’ You don’t have to solve it necessarily, just ask the question,” says the registered psychologist. Then you can help colleagues navigate what their options are.

“You don’t need to be heroic, it’s about creating a culture of acknowledgment of it, not trying to hide it. And trust is really big,” says the psychologist.

Trust comes from four things – competence, predictability, integrity and benevolence. Most of the time, companies manage the first three but benevolence, less so, in the psychologist’s opinion.

“Benevolence is showing they give a s**t. If someone says I'm struggling, and they ask, could I take some leave without pay or change my hours? Benevolence is saying, ‘I might not be able to do that but how about this.”

One Australian company Gus worked with allowed two people to go off campervanning for a year after an exhausting period of work. The message from the organisation was, do this and then we’d like you to come back.

Mental health support can be quite subtle adjustments at an organisational level, says the Winsborough CEO. Life’s about trying to manage multiple things, allowing people to work from home achieves a lot of that, he suggests.

One company he knows has an annual “week of you” for employees where they get to work on projects close to their heart. The message is: “Benevolence is not all about me but I care for you, what do you need?” says Gus.

There are a lot of life challenges for older employees as well as the young, stresses the psychologist. Look at your demographic at the company and what you could provide assistance with, he suggests.

Mental health support can be providing staff with assistance on things people struggle with in life – some organisations have lunch and learn sessions on personal finances, for instance. One law firm Gus knows had a session on menopause. “They had an amazing speaker, a doctor who was really good at putting the issues across. That’s an example of benevolence, we care about you as a person,” says the psychologist.

Looking for staff?
Source, compare and shortlist in one place.
List now