From XU Magazine, 
Issue 29

How business leaders and managers play a vital role in leading the way to healthy work environments

During the past two years COVID-19 has changed the face of our work life. It has been incredibly challenging and very disruptive for business owner and their employees. It has now never been more important as leaders or managers to keep your workforce mentally healthy. Here are some key strategies for creating a healthy work environment now and into the future.

Workers across Australia have experienced a change to their employment due to coronavirus. For some, it has meant coping with increased pressure as a frontline worker. For others, it’s meant adapting to working from home, which can affect mental health. Either situation provides its own levels of stressors.

Associate Professor Karina Jorritsma, lead researcher of Curtin University’s Thrive at Work Wellbeing Initiative, says the shift is presenting the nation with an empowering opportunity, one that some businesses are already capitalising on.

Business owners, individuals and teams are taking stock, using this time to ask, ‘Why do we do things the way we do?’ They are recognising that how and where we work can buffer the impact workplace demands have on our mental health.  Particularly considering COVID-19 has presented many new demands and required an immediate change to the way we work. We have experienced many new ways of working over the past 20 months. This provides business owners and managers the opportunity to think differently on how they set up work environments and teams moving forward. This will lead to more creative thinking and innovative solutions for working.  

A greater awareness of the role of work on our mental health is developing due to the challenges coronavirus has thrown at us. It is not just in the sense of offering support to employees who need it. It is also acknowledging the importance that productive and meaningful work has for mental health and wellbeing. 

There are some major effects of coronavirus that are expected to be long-lasting – it is likely that a growing number of employees will continue to carry on working from home. This will provide a new “norm” for working and gives employees options that can have a positive impact on their team’s mental health.

Using an integrated approach

Employers have legal obligations to support mental health in the workplace. This has never been more apparent, and many business owners are taking the lead here as they ensure the health and safety of their teams during the challenges of coronavirus. 

A great work environment can influence mental health in a very positive way.  Businesses can take advantage of it by using an integrated approach. Combining a genuine focus on wellness within the workplace together with productive and meaningful work. This provides employees and teams with fulfilling roles and greater job satisfaction.

As a business starts to learn more about this, there’s often an ‘a-ha’ moment when leaders realise that they’re already using many of these tools – they just haven’t brought it all together under the umbrella of a mental health and wellbeing strategy. So, don’t feel daunted. You can incorporate what your business is already doing to support wellbeing as well as strengthening your approach using the three pillars of the integrated approach. These are:

Promoting healthy and thriving workplaces

This means creating conditions that allow employees to perform, connect with each other and grow. While workplaces have been impacted differently by coronavirus, it’s useful to look at the specific changes your business has experienced and consider how that’s impacted the demands employees are experiencing. 

Then you can assess which strategies or resources could buffer or help to reduce those demands. One way of promoting healthy workplaces is by asking teams to complete a personal wellness plan. This will help them take time to assess what stressors impact them and how they can develop strategies to manage the ongoing stress.

A workplace wellbeing plan is also helpful in showing the teams your business is conscious of the importance of a healthy workplace and have thought about actions to help and support teams. 

Beyond Blue provides excellent wellbeing plans for individuals and businesses.

Protecting workers from risks to mental health

Work design – which is the content and organisation of someone’s work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities rather than the aesthetics of a workspace – is key here. Think role clarity, recognition, feedback, and task variety. Being clear with teams about their accountabilities and responsibilities is key. When it’s done well, it protects workers from exposure to psychological hazards by addressing them before they arise.

Supporting workers experiencing mental health challenges

This includes having leaders who are educated to monitor mental health, as well as taking steps to remove barriers around seeking mental health support, offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and accommodating employees’ return to work. Taking a leadership role in your business provides safety and security for all employees.

There are many resources and information to assist business, leaders and managers in this area making it easier to understand and implement. HeadsUp – the mentally health workplace alliance with Beyond Blue provides excellent resources for employers, employees, managers, and small business.

What to do as an employee 

While it’s business leaders who are responsible for creating a mentally healthy workplace, every individual can play their part. We all need to take responsibility for our mental health and wellbeing. Taking actions each day that help us maintain a sense of balance in our personal and work lives. Exercise, sleep, diet is important, as are work boundaries and taking regular breaks to ensure we manage the varying levels of stress in our lives.

Other approaches include job crafting, which is when an employee takes steps to shape the way they work. Job crafting involves an employee themselves shaping the way they do their work, in a way that makes their job more engaging and meaningful. It occurs when an individual alters aspects of their own tasks to improve the fit between their work and their individual preferences.

Once we are aware of the different aspects of work that are important for our mental health, there are a lot of things you can do, including asking yourself questions like:

• what can I do to mix up my job and get more variety?

• asking for more feedback

• asking for role clarity 

Why leave it there?

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