Prioritising mental health for SMEs


24th July, 2021

Mental health in the workplace: A simple guide

Small business owners and managers often look to advisors for support in areas beyond what they’re able to offer, including for mental health and wellbeing advice. But a helpful guide from Beyond Blue may be the first step towards addressing this issue.

Many people at the helm of Australia’s 2.26 million small businesses share something in common.

Working long hours, cash flow issues, social isolation and balancing work and domestic responsibilities are some of the unique challenges small business owners face.

And not surprisingly, these factors can also affect a business owner’s mental health and wellbeing.

While running a small business can be hugely rewarding, a 2018 University of Melbourne report commissioned by Beyond Blue found almost one third of small business owners report having high levels of psychological distress.

The good news is that with support, people who experience mental health conditions can recover or effectively manage symptoms enabling them to live contributing lives.

That’s because mental health is not a fixed or static state.

What is mental health in a workplace?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’.

(Workplace Mental Health Toolkit, Black Dog Institute)

Mental health exists on what experts call a continuum, where positive mental health is at one end, through to severe symptoms of mental health conditions at the other.

Think of it as a set of traffic lights.

If you’re in the green, you’re feeling good and functioning well. You are physically and socially active and sleeping well.

Stress and other factors can lead us into the orange, where we might be irritable, forgetful, anxious and nervous.

If we end up in the red, we may have angry outbursts, constant fatigue, experience extreme anxiety and panic attacks, and possibly experience suicidal thoughts.

It goes without saying that it’s important to stay in the green whenever possible, and if we feel ourselves sliding towards the orange or red, that we know how to recognise the signs and how to take appropriate action.

Why is good mental health in the workplace important?

A 2020 Productivity Commission report examining the effect of mental health on people’s ability to participate and prosper in the community and workplace found that:

In total, mental illness, on a conservative basis, is costing Australia about $200-220 billion per year. To put that in context, this is just over one-tenth of the size of Australia’s entire economic production in 2019. The cost is between $550 million and $600 million per day.

In the workplace, people struggling with poor mental health are more likely to be less productive or absent, which has the overall effect of reducing productivity and economic gain.

As well as economic reasons why good mental health in the workplace is important – and worth investing in – there are clear social and moral reasons. Here are some of the reasons why good mental health in the workforce is important.

1. Reduce absenteeism

The report found that workplace absenteeism (the inability to go to work) and presenteeism (the inability to fully function at work) due to mental ill-health cost from $13 billion to $17 billion per year. Employees who are mentally well are less likely to take days off work from mental ill health – and are more likely to be high-functioning when they are at work.

2. Increase productivity

Employees who are feeling mentally healthy are better able to fully function while they are at work. It follows that their output will be greater and of a higher quality than if they’re feeling mentally compromised.

3. High return on investment

A Beyond Blue–commissioned report by Price Waterhouse Coopers found that there is a significant return on investment as a result of taking action in the workplace. The report found that for every dollar invested in effective mental health initiatives, there’s an average return investment of $2.30.

While the exact amount varies between businesses and industry, the overall conclusion was that the financial benefits were significant.

4. Moral reasons

Morality can be a different proposition from one individual to the next, as well as from one business to the next.

But it would be difficult to argue against a moral obligation as an employer to keep staff safe from harm for the sake of themselves and their families – and for the continued success of your business. After all, businesses rely on people to keep operations going, morale high and productivity consistent.

5. Meet OHS obligations

Legally, employers are obliged to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Under the obligations, mental health is regarded in a similar way to physical safety and wellbeing. An employer is under a duty to provide a working environment and conditions that do not harm a person’s mental wellbeing, or aggravate an existing condition.

6. Attract higher quality talent

Providing a workplace in which employees are supported to mentally thrive will, as a matter of course, create a better productive and social atmosphere.

In the so-called ‘war for talent’, employers who offer a commitment to mental wellbeing will have the upper hand over others who haven’t invested in or communicated their mental health policies.

The signs of poor mental health and wellbeing

The signs of poor mental health can manifest in many ways which can often make it difficult to identify if support is needed, either for ourselves or for others.

A person who runs or works in a business may not be meeting deadlines, may be less engaged in meetings or their work standards may be lower than usual.

At the more serious end, a small business owner may find it difficult to control their behaviour at work, be absent from work, or have withdrawn from colleagues, customers and clients.

The signs of poor mental health can include:

`1. Not meeting deadlines

Failing to meet deadlines may indicate diminishing mental health in a business owner or employee.

2. Low or lack or engagement

A lack of engagement in work, meetings or team activities could be a sign that a person is struggling with their mental health.

3. Drop in work standards

If the quality of a business owner’s or employee’s work drops suddenly or unexpectedly, there may be a mental health issue at its core.

4. Low energy or withdrawn behaviour

Sometimes, but not always, mental health problems manifest in outwardly observable behaviour. Are you or an employee withdrawing from conversation or interaction with others?

5. Aggressive or confrontational behaviour

Occasionally, poor mental health is demonstrated but uncharacteristically aggressive or confrontational behaviour.

As well as possibly demonstrating poor mental health in the aggressive individual, of additional concern is that this sort of behaviour can affect others’ mental wellbeing too.

6. Absenteeism

If a business owner or employee takes a number of days off without explanation, or with questionable cause, this could indicate declining mental wellbeing.

Supporting mental health in the workplace

The role of small business advisors is about more than just providing guidance on debts, accounts and assets — it’s about people.

As professionals, small business advisers equip small business owners with the right information so they can run their business successfully.

Now they can also play an important role in supporting the mental wellbeing of small business owners and empowering them to look after their own mental health.

Beyond Blue’s Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work guide equips small business advisors, as well as family members and friends, with practical information they can share with small business owners.

The guide allows these advisers, who often see first-hand how stress can affect small business owners, to provide support without needing to be a trained counsellor or clinician.

It includes practical tips on:

  • Providing immediate support to a small business owner
  • Recognising signs of poor mental health
  • Speaking with someone you’re concerned about
  • And how small business owners can improve their situation

It also provides links to resources such as personal and workplace wellbeing plans, actions that small business owners can take themselves, and information on how advisers can look after their own mental health.

How to improve mental health in the workplace

The guide suggests several ways for small business advisors to help impact positive mental health practices in a business. 

Another Beyond Blue guide, entitled Actions for small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing, provides practical suggestions for business owners to improve their mental health — and ultimately the health of their business. 

They include things like:

1. Create checklists

Using anxiety and depression checklists to assess mental health and wellbeing is an easy way to make a quick assessment.

2. Encouraging communication

Staying in touch with family and friends can help ease the burden by sharing the load.

3. Work-life balance

Developing interests and hobbies outside of work will help contribute to an overall feeling of balance. This will also contribute to working reasonable hours.

4. Healthy habits

Prioritising quality sleep, maintaining physical fitness and eating well are the core basis for good health, including good mental health.

5. Good business practices

Organising your business systems and automating tasks can keep your workload from overwhelming.

Where worrying about finances is keeping mental health on edge, seeking help from banks, the ATO and creditors, or talking to a financial counsellor, may be of assistance.

6. Easily find medical support

Accessing mental health support services can help get to the bottom of persistent or deeper problems. Your GP or local mental health service can help connect you to these.

Download the free Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work guide