I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the important role of workplaces in supporting their employees to be mentally healthy.

In my experience, the focus of most employers is on what employees can do to improve their own mental health: things like taking breaks from your computer, going for a walk at lunchtime and practicing mindfulness. THESE ARE IMPORTANT, but I think what much of the conversation ignores is that employers also have a moral (and legal) duty of care to provide a mentally health workplace.

First off, workplaces should think about the things they can do to promote resilience. This includes thinking about the kinds of things that trigger mental ill-health. For example, the kind of work that I do as an evaluator can often be confronting. Usually programs are implemented to try to right a wrong, and listening to people’s stories about their experiences can be a challenge. I know the kinds of things that trigger me to feel unwell and I avoid working on projects that touch on these issues, but my employer also actively asks me if I am OK to work on topics that some might find challenging, such as palliative care and out of home care.

Work spaces and interactions with colleagues can also be triggering. Employees often spend upwards of eight hours a day in their work environment, so employers should think about the spaces they provide. I work in an open plan office and am incredibly grateful for the private, quiet spaces separate from our main desk area that I can retreat to when I am feeling anxious, down or too wound up to concentrate.

Employees are whole people, and many of the things that affect them at work are from their life outside work. Many of the people I know who have experienced mental ill-health at work have done so following a significant life stressor, such as a bereavement. Most workplaces offer compassionate leave for when someone is grieving, but many then expect a person to revert to ‘normal’ once their leave is over. Employers need to get better at recognising, and providing a compassionate response, when life spills over into work.

When an employee experiences a physical condition, the lines of responsibility are clear. Employees have a responsibility to prevent back pain through correct posture and regular stretching while employers have a responsibility to provide suitable ergonomic desk set-ups and training on how to lift appropriately. But everyone recognises, that with the best investment in ‘resilience’ in the world, sometimes employees will have a bad back.

And I think this is where the comparison between how employers treat physical and mental health conditions breaks down. Employers openly acknowledge the back pain and support their employee to get back to work to the best of their ability. This kind of openness is rarely seen when supporting a mentally ill person in their recovery.

But holding down a job is a central part of recovery for people with mental ill-health. The ABS estimates that the loss of productivity from mental ill-health is about $20 billion. That from back pain has been shown to be about $14 billion. The economic impacts are similar, but employers know what to do when it comes to back pain.

While I do think there is a great deal of stigma about mental illness tied up in there, I think the greatest barrier for employers is that they genuinely don’t know what to do when it comes to supporting an employee with a mental illness.

Asking employees with mental illness what they need and want is a good first step. It’s critical that employees control the narrative of their illness because mental illness can be deeply disempowering. But it’s also important that employers are proactive in supporting their employee; someone with mental ill-health shouldn’t be expected to have to deal with their illness and educate their employer on how not to be terrible.

The conversation about creating mentally healthy workplaces can’t just be about resilience. Resilience puts the onus on employees to control something that is often not in their control. It focuses the conversation on mental wellness and fails to recognise that sometimes people are ill.

If you want to know more about what you can do as an employer or manager to support your colleagues and employees with mental ill-health, I encourage you to check out Heads Up, an initiative from beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplaces Alliance designed to do exactly that. They have some amazing resources.

Image credit: @chuckdrawsthings on Instragram