Mental health isn’t about preventing sickness – it's about flourishing

Employers need to provide more than a fruit bowl and a yoga class to create a mentally healthy workplace. We talk to John Fitzgerald at WorkSafe NZ.


John Fitzgerald

John Fitzgerald

According to the World Health Organisation, a person is mentally healthy if they realise their own potentials, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to their community. 

“The WHO definition of mental health doesn’t mention anxiety or depression or PTSD or stress,” says WorkSafe NZ’s John Fitzgerald. “Instead, it makes the point that mental health is not just the absence of a disorder – it’s about flourishing, and we encourage businesses to take that approach.

“You’re not just trying to prevent your staff from getting sick, you’re trying to help your people be the best they can be and bring that to work, for your benefit.”  

John, a clinical psychologist, joined WorkSafe NZ 15 months ago to head up the Mentally Healthy Work team. They are a team of five, and their primary focus is to help businesses and workers understand what mentally healthy work is, why it's important, and what their obligations are under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.  

“What we’ve found is that plenty of people are genuinely interested in creating a mentally healthy workplace, but they don’t know how to do it. Some workplaces put a bowl of fruit on the counter and get a wellbeing app and think they’ve got a mentally healthy work programme – but they haven’t."  

Three reasons to care about the mental health of your employees  

John says mental health in the workplace is important for three reasons.  

“Firstly, it’s good for business. People are more productive, they take less sick leave, and they are more likely to remain in their jobs for longer. It also improves the brand of the organisation so firms will have a better profile in the marketplace and find it easier to recruit staff.  

“Secondly, it’s an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act. People don’t really understand that it’s a legal obligation, but every time you read the word ‘health’ in the Act, you need to be thinking about mental health as well as physical health.  

“And thirdly is the moral and ethical obligation to do the right thing. Spillover is a technical term used to describe the impact of life on work and work on life. If someone is really stressed at work, they don’t leave that stress there when they clock out at 5pm, instead they might jump in their car and speed out onto the road, nearly knocking someone off a bicycle or running over someone. They might get home and yell at their partner or their kids.  

“So if you run a business where people get stressed and anxious and depressed, that’s spilling over into their life. You’re not only impacting your workers’ wellbeing and the way they relate to their colleagues, but you’re also impacting their partners, their kids and the wider community.”  

Realising we can do better    

John says there is a shift happening in New Zealand where businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the need to support their employees’ mental health, and workers are increasingly letting their employers know when work is negatively affecting them.   

WorkSafe NZ data from 2019 showed that in the previous 12 months, about 60% of workers reported elevated levels of work-related stress, 30% reported elevated levels of anxiety, and 20% increasing levels of depression.    

“We also see the reports into bug businesses and national organisations where people are finally standing up and saying these bad things are happening.  

“With COVID, people are thinking more about how to support and look after each other. And we also have a government that is encouraging us to think more about wellbeing. So a lot of things have come together to make us realise that we can do better.”  

Professional services workers report poor mental wellbeing   

WorkSafe NZ's 2019 Segmentation and insights report showed that for employees working in ‘professional, scientific and technical services’, 46% reported ‘poor mental wellbeing’. This was the second worst sector behind ‘information media and telecommunications’.   

Industries like construction, agriculture, forestry and manufacturing sat at 20-30%. “The industries in which people interact with things, like heavy machinery or logs or cattle, generally reported much better rates of mental wellbeing,” John says.   

“But it’s the workplaces where people interact with people that we’re more likely to see problems with mental wellbeing. The professional sector – lawyers, accountants, engineers, consultants – people are often interacting with other people when they’re distressed, where there are financial pressures and conflicts, or where deadlines are really tight. So there’s a lot at stake.”    

The report showed that businesses in the professional sector were also more likely to consider health and safety and wellbeing as just a compliance issue.   

“Many see health and safety as an issue for forestry or construction, they think it doesn’t relate to white collar workers. But it does, and it’s a much more sophisticated issue because most of it is about mental wellbeing. Health and safety is about more than workers being at risk of physical harm.”

What’s the ROI?  

Some research shows that for every dollar we invest in the wellbeing of our workforce, on average there is a $12 return, John says.  

“Obviously in some places the return is closer to zero and in other places it’s well over $12, but on average it’s $12. And I think the problem with the bowl of fruit and the yoga classes and the wellbeing app is that it targets everybody, when actually we need to look at the work people are doing and realise that there are some people who are more vulnerable or need particular support and care.  

“Generally, investing in the wellbeing of your staff is a wise investment. But before you throw money at something, think about what you want to achieve and who do you want to achieve it with.” 

So how can businesses, particularly small businesses and SMEs, start a journey towards a mentally healthy workplace?    

Expert advice on managing wellbeing at work   

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a good place to start, John says. Its standards are internationally agreed by experts and in July it published ISO45003, a set of guidelines for managing psychosocial risks and managing wellbeing at work.  

“It gives some really good, simple guidance about what the risks in the workplace are and what a business might do to manage these,” John says.    

“Some risks are about work design - too much or too little work, not being clear about what work they have to do, not having control and autonomy in their work. Some are about the work environment – not having enough space, or working in isolation. And the third set of risks are about unacceptable workplace relationships, for example bullying and harassment.  

“These guidelines break it down into three areas and give you ideas about what an assessment in those areas might likened to include and what mitigations you might put in place.”  

John suggests making use of the ‘45003 Academy’, which offers a free one-hour webinar to help understand the guidelines.  

He also recommends looking at the resources on the New Zealand Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum website. “There’s a really nice simple assessment guide about where to start and how to assess where you’re up to. It's titled 'Protecting Mental Wellbeing at Work'.”  

And of course there is WorkSafe NZ. John and his team offer a range of information and resources on how to support and maintain good mental health, and how to avoid work that is harmful to mental health. They are currently updating WorkSafe NZ’s guidance and assessment tools around managing stress and working from home. 

John is one of several experts contributing to a new book – keep an eye out for ‘Mentally Healthy Work in Aotearoa New Zealand’, due out before the end of the year.  

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