Mental health must be front of mind in our workplaces, says Prof Martin

22 Apr 2021

By Contributor

Prof Gary Martin, Chief Executive and Executive Director of Australian Institute of Management WA, shares his thoughts on mental health in workplace environments. Photo: AIM WA.

By Prof Gary Martin

If there is a single topic front of mind for many in the business community this year it has to be mental health and wellbeing.

Recognising that a cocktail of COVID-19 related conditions has put a massive dent in the mental health of employees, some bosses are enlisting the services of trained and experienced in-house counsellors or psychologists in a bid to improve emotional wellbeing.

As much as their efforts are well intentioned and an important step forwards in managing a health crisis of plague proportions, they are destined to fail – at least in many workplaces.

Workers everywhere are having a tough time but most refuse to ask for help.

A stigma continues to prevail in most workplaces, which prevents those afflicted with mental health conditions to speak freely about their challenges to the same extent that they would talk about their physical health.

In fact, the stigma in most workplaces is greater than you would like to believe.

The perceived shame will leave many who experience conditions such as anxiety disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress suffer in silence and bypass in-house specialist support for fear of damaging their career prospects.

At the heart of their unease is the way in which mental ill health is described in the workplace.

How often, for example, do we hear those with a mental health condition being described as “not altogether”, “out of it”, odd, dangerous, violent, crazy, incompetent, comical or scary — rather than just unwell?

And what about referring to “happy pills” rather than anti-depressants and seeking assistance from a psychologist rather than visiting the “shrink”?

The mental health stigma discourages people from seeking help, which makes recovery harder, fuels isolation and gives rise to a new phenomenon in our workplaces — presenteeism, the term used to describe people who are physically at work but mentally tuned out.

If that is not enough for those with mental ill-health to endure, those brave enough to reveal their struggle to colleagues rarely get the support they need.

Regularly, those with mental ill-health are fobbed off with condescending, demeaning or humiliating comments from those who believe they are being “supportive”.

AIM WA leader Prof Gary Martin questions what our businesses are doing to support employees’ mental health. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Examples abound. Those with mental ill-health are regularly told by their colleagues that “it’s all in your head”, “you just have to snap out of it”, “everyone gets a little down at times” or “just try to be positive”.

And the most damaging of all comments is that “suicide is so selfish”.

These types of remark do little to support those with mental-ill health and are a far cry from what is actually needed – mental wellness ambassadors in each and every workplace across the country.

They are your colleagues who work to break down the mental health stigma by taking specific steps to challenge the misinformation present in most workplaces.

They are your everyday work mates who have undertaken appropriate mental health first aid training, which enables them to provide day-to-day support and mentor others who wish to support the emotional wellbeing of a colleague.

Importantly, mental health ambassadors are not a replacement for the professional services offered by the company or through external agencies. The ambassadors play an important role in supporting the work of those professionals.

Talk of a crisis in our mental health had been seeping into workplaces well before the coronavirus pandemic.

And while COVID-19 has reinforced awareness of the importance of bolstering emotional wellbeing, simple awareness raising will fail to tackle the burgeoning crisis left in the wake of the pandemic.

Until we break the stigma attached to mental health and equip everyday workers to support their colleagues, a climate of keeping things under wraps will prevail in many workplaces.

And with that, those experiencing a tough time will continue to suffer in silence – and productivity will fall.

If you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Emeritus Professor Gary Martin FAIM FACE commenced in the role of Chief Executive and Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Management WA in 2012. He has overall responsibility for leading all aspects of the Institute’s business, which is focussed on building leadership, management, and workplace capability both in Australia and internationally, and across the corporate, government, not-for-profit and community sector.

This article has been sourced from – republished with permission.