Lucinda Brogden: how leaders can improve workplace mental health

As Australia adapts to living with COVID-19, leaders must move away from yoga and fruit bowls and focus on job design to genuinely support workplace mental health, says National Mental Health Commission Chair Lucinda Brogden.

Mental health issues and suicide cost the Australian economy at least $200 billion a year, according to a report by the Productivity Commission published in 2020. This data was recorded before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the pandemic has since had a significant impact on mental health around the country. In response, the Australian government has ramped up its total annual investment in mental health from $5.9 billion in 2020–21 to $6.3 billion in 2021–22. The government has also outlined its expectations of business owners and leaders to provide a mentally healthy workplace to improve the mental wellbeing of Australians. 

How workplaces and other social determinants influence mental health is central to the work of the National Mental Health Commission, which monitors and reports on investment in mental health and suicide prevention initiatives, provides policy advice to the Australian government, and disseminates information on ways to improve public mental health and suicide prevention systems. “Because we’ve been doing all that work when COVID struck, we were the first country to actually come out with a mental health response to the pandemic, and many other countries have emulated that,” said Lucinda Brogden AM, Chair and Commissioner, National Mental Health Commission. 

Ms Brogden recently discussed the effects of COVID-19 on workplace mental health with UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel, Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise). Prof. Anseel has a PhD in organisational psychology and his research focuses on why and how people contribute to organisational success and other current issues including the future of work and mental health in the workplace. Speaking with Ms Brogden, who is also Chair of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and a UNSW Business School alumna, the pair discussed practical ways organisations need to offer mental health support to employees both now and beyond COVID.

The impact of COVID-19 on workplace mental health 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an especially devastating impact on young people’s mental health, explained Ms Brogden. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re in it for the long haul. So how do we actually start to entrench some of this COVID response into mainstream service?” 

For example, the government recently announced $106 million to ensure that telehealth becomes a permanent fixture in Australia’s health regime. “Five years ago, no one was thinking that way. So these are big and positive changes, but we need to keep an eye on those that are vulnerable, and not to actually medicalise everybody,” said Ms Brogden. “Find those that are truly at risk, and provide the support to them, and allow others to get on with life and whatever the new normal looks like. And that’s actually a balancing act to say that we’re all in this together, and have that sense of solidarity, actually, some of us are more in it than others.” 

Prof. Anseel also said the pandemic has also upended the world of work for many organisations, forcing leaders to consider several important questions surrounding workplace mental health. “So COVID-19 hits us, what we see is (especially the lockdowns and people needing to work from home, but also schools being closed and a lot of changes, almost overnight) … the impact is truly devastating,” he said. “For instance, of course, we’re a university that cares about our students, and we immediately saw the impact on young people, young adults, our students. They felt isolated, sometimes not supported, not knowing how to go about this. And we, as a university also, this was new to us, right? We’re trying to grapple with this, how do we deal with this?”

Requirements for employers to provide mental health support 

The Black Dog Institute estimates that one in six Australian workers experience mental illness, which is a leading cause of sickness, absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia. A mentally healthy workplace is one where such risk factors are acknowledged and addressed. From an organisational perspective, addressing mental health in the workplace can increase productivity and employee engagement, but for the individual, it means a healthy, balanced life and psychological wellbeing. 

While employers have legal obligations to support mental health in the workplace, that shouldn’t be the bare minimum of support on offer. “COVID aside, all organisations in Australia have an obligation to provide a psychologically safe workplace. Across the nine jurisdictions, we’ve got about 20 pieces of legislation that go for workplace health and safety, discrimination, privacy, carers, etc.,” explained Ms Brogden. 

“That all impacts on the way our organisations should run and support people. That’s the baseline, not the aspirational goal. And from there, we want to create these mentally healthy workplaces,” she said.  

Read more: What was the real impact of COVID-19 on our mental health?

While there are practical solutions for workplaces, like those in this simple Beyond Blue checklist, which aims to measure whether small business owners or managers have been affected by depression and anxiety during the past four weeks, or Beyond Blue’s workplace wellbeing plan which helps small business owners, there are other more important structural issues to address in how jobs are designed in the first place. 

“This is about the culture of your organisation. When you present things to me about your flexibility policy, actually, flexibility is a state of mind, not an articulation on a piece of paper,” said Ms Brogden, who also urged organisations to look beyond “yoga and fruit bowls” and focus on job creation and design that truly supports workplace mental health. 

“And it’s become actually a huge priority as we go to hybrid ways of working,” she said. “And so I think this is not something that you can put your head in the sand over, you have to actively embrace your team, your colleagues and have a conversation about ‘how are we going to work?’” 

Lucy Brogden is Chair of UNSW’s Australian Mental Health Prize, Chair of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and a UNSW Business School alumnaFrederik Anseel is Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly