The taboo of mental health issues in the workplace is falling away. Traditionally, mental illness has been seen as frightening, time-consuming and challenging to manage. But workplaces are changing.

"The prevailing (belief) in our culture is mental health is something scary," says Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.
"We don't talk about it."

The more we korero, however, the easier it is for someone who is struggling and needs help to speak up in the workplace.

The big legislative change in recent years was the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA). The act included a higher bar for psychological hazards in the workplace that lead to work-related stress, anxiety or depression. It has helped change how employers view and deal with a: promoting good mental health and wellbeing at work and b: assisting employees who experience mental health related illness.

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Robinson says that prior to 2015 employers often focused on the physical safety side of their obligations towards employees. Yet it benefits employers to have a physically and mentally healthy workforce.

Thanks in part to the new law many employers have had their eyes opened to hazards to employees' mental health, says Robinson. "They are now waking up to the notion that things like fatigue, mental state, bullying (etcetera) impact on a person's wellbeing."

Since the law came into effect the foundation has trained more than 400 representatives of employers per year around issues related to mental health and wellbeing. "We are seeing some really big organisations as well as small organisations really pick it up and run with it," says Robinson.

The foundation has almost been overwhelmed by organisations seeking its guidance to address mental wellbeing for their staff.

He admits smaller organisations find it difficult to implement the rules. "That can be a challenge in the small operation where the owner-operator has to cover all the functions of a manager," he says. "What has emerged from the latest research is the owner-operator who sacrifices their own mental wellbeing to look after their staff. Or they say: 'I am working this hard and I feel like crap so everybody else has to as well'. "

As well as a legislative "stick" there is also the "carrot" in relation to the business case for mitigating mental health and wellbeing risks.

Robinson cites the insurance industry. "Sometimes staff have to deal with pretty traumatic situations customers have gone through or are going through. Many staff (members) find that very traumatising ."

They may, for example, have to tell policyholders they are not covered for a claim they have made.

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In the past, says Robinson, some businesses had a model where they hire smart staff, pay them lots and work them to the bone then when they quit take on the next bright young thing. "That's not a very cost-effective business model."

Employers can do a lot to build stronger (mental) health and wellbeing in their organisations, he says. They can create a strong sense of connection with people in the workplace, encourage physical activity, provide healthy food, and offer volunteering in the community. "Many organisations bring people in for relation, yoga, mindfulness, and encourage staff members to keep learning."

The big fail on the mental health/safe working place front for workplaces is the issue of bullying.

New Zealand doesn't have a very good mechanism for dealing with bullying, says Robinson.

"Bullying is probably one of the biggest and more difficult issues to address. It is often quite insidious; below the line of vision.

"It can be difficult to define bullying. One person's "assertive style" may be perceived by someone else as aggressive and bullying.

When bullying is raised as a workplace issue many organisations lawyer up, he says, and the victim is often revictimised, or gives up.

"We need a more restorative justice system for dealing with bullying, not an 'I will have bigger better lawyers than you. I will intimidate you so you never make a complaint," says Robison. "It should be a process that leads everyone to (conclusion) rather than a win/loss situation."

Employment lawyers have also seen change for the better on issues related to workplace mental health / wellbeing over the past five years. Bridget Smith, partner at SBM Legal says the case law has been trending in a similar way to society in regards to mental health.

"(There has been) an increased focus on the employer's obligations where an employee identifies they have mental health issues," says Smith.

A particularly interesting development has come about in situations where employees raise issues but aren't willing to make a formal complaint, says Smith. "Once upon a time if an employee came and said 'there is something unsafe about my workplace; I am being bullied or harassed', but didn't want to make a formal complaint and wouldn't give permission to raise the issue, the employer would say: 'there is nothing I can do'.

That's not good enough now as far as the law is concerned. "Where an employer is on notice of these issues regardless of the fact someone is not wanting to make a formal complaint the employer still has an obligation to take some form of action," says Smith.

That action isn't prescribed, yet the employer needs to deal with the issue. "Maybe you need to do some sort of broader investigation."

Smith and Robinson are noticing more and more employers making positive steps to reduce mental health hazards in the workplace. Smith cites Vodafone offering its staff Friday afternoons off in January and February of this year. The telecommunication company identified that the children are off school and it's a really valuable time for people to spend with their families.

"Employees have this happy positive relationship at home are happy at work. It all goes around in a nice little circle," she says.

Smith says Spark appointed a mental health advocate Grant Pritchard in 2017. "I am sure they are not the only large organisation doing that. Five years ago we didn't have any of that."

Robinson cites The Warehouse Group's family violence policy as a shining example of good practice.

Finally Robinson says there is still a goodly distance to go in New Zealand but the willingness among employers is growing to address a broad range of mental health related issues.

Act and obligations

■ Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 has improved the handling of mental health issues in the workplace.

■ Employers are coming to realise that their obligations towards employees cover mental and physical health.

■ Organisations are upskilling their knowledge and training around mental health in the workplace.