TW: This article mentions suicide and self harm. For mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online. For immediate assistance call 000.
We have entered the month of Movember where sightings of long facial hair suddenly become more frequent.
The point of Movember is, of course, not to pursue one very fine moustache. But rather to facilitate a space in which people can have frank discussions about men’s health.
Movember shines a light on how men’s mental health has been a taboo topic, shrouded by notions of toxic masculinity. In doing so, it also shows us how important it is for us to be able to have a frank approach to mental health in the workplace without fear of stigmatisation.
For many Australians, talking about mental health can feel like a mammoth task – especially when your mental health is the topic of discussion. In the workplace – particularly those that lack infrastructure or support for employee wellbeing – it’s even more challenging.
But, when you consider that one in five Australian workers experience mental illness in a given year, and workplace mental health issues are costing the economy upwards of $200 billion per year, it’s clear that something needs to change.
And it all starts with our mindset.
The barriers to open conversation around mental health
For most people, when you’re sick or physically injured, you feel justified in taking the day off. Being physically unwell almost gives us the permission we need to spend the day in bed or schedule a doctor appointment.
But that’s not always the case regarding our mental health.
Psychological injuries and hazards tend to be harder to identify and address
For the most part, they’re invisible, and if you don’t have the emotional awareness or vocabulary to express your emotions, it’s near impossible.
That’s because workers’ experiences of mental trauma are only something our medical systems have started to understand and address relatively recently. It wasn’t until the 20th century that mental health diagnoses were being taken seriously.
And while there has been some shift in community sentiment toward mental health, there is still widespread misunderstanding and stigma surrounding the topic – another reason why many Australian employees hesitate to seek the support they need.
From stereotypes and myths to ignorance, false assumptions or negative attitudes toward mental health held by colleagues, organisations or internalised by the individual experiencing distress, the stigma surrounding mental health is deep-seated in the workplace, and more prevalent in some industries than others.
This is why taking a mental health day can often feel like waving a big red flag in your employer’s face that says “I’m not ok” (and why 28% of workers with work-related mental or physical injury don’t take time off when they need to). You may be concerned about how your perceived mental health will impact your employer’s opinion of you and the quality of your work. Or, you may fear your job will be on the line if you speak up.
Under the Fair Work Act, employees experiencing mental health related issues are protected from unlawful workplace discrimination. It’s the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment for employees. Any failings to do so are theirs alone, not the employees’.
But just like a physical injury, if left unchecked, poor mental health can worsen over time, leading to increased stress, decreased productivity, mental health disorders (such as anxiety or depression), physical illness or burnout.
The Mind Your Head campaign has resources for workers looking to ensure a healthy workplace. You can learn more about that here.
What is burnout and how do I avoid it?
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in response to the growing number of individuals experiencing work-related stress as a result of increasing pressure, workload and the rise of 24/7 connectivity.
WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
And while protecting employees from burnout is primarily the responsibility of the employer, being aware of the warning signs can help to stop it in its tracks and avoid the situation getting out of hand.
According to WHO, they include energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
If any of these factors ring a bell, you’re not alone.
Rewind to 2021, the year of the ‘Great Resignation’, where one in five Australians quit their job. According to recent research, workers cited lack of personal fulfilment, purpose or meaning, impact on mental health, poor work-life balance and, you guessed it, burnout, as the major factors behind their decision.
When our stress levels reach an all-time high, it’s difficult to regulate our emotions and as a result, feelings of sadness, anger and guilt can lead to panic attacks, anger outbursts, substance abuse or, in the worst case, suicide.
In Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 44, Approximately 8.6 Australians die each day by suicide, 75 per cent of which are male. And for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this rate is doubled.
So, how can we better support our mental health?
To make real change, we need open and honest dialogue around mental health. And that goes for the workplace, too.
Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment and they need the appropriate knowledge, language and tools required to support workers’ wellbeing.
At work or at rest, adopting a more holistic approach toward understanding our mental health can help overcome perceived stigmas or hurdles in the way of living our best lives.
And by that, we mean looking at health as more than your physical wellbeing, but your emotional and social wellbeing. Data has shown that having a strong network of friends and loved ones around us gives us more purpose in life, and that this is directly related to our overall sense of wellbeing and connection to community and the workplace.