Kath Walters considers the growing duties of directors when it comes to the mental wellbeing of employees in the organisations they govern.

    Are you okay?

    How many of us arrive at the end of the year feeling energised, fulfilled and ready for more? For most boards and their executives, such an idea is almost laughable. Instead, most of us expect to feel exhausted and depleted by the constant stresses of shareholder meetings, annual reports and growth targets. It’s time to rethink that idea. Boards have a legislative responsibility to ensure that the workplace is mentally healthy under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010, the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Fair Work Act 2009.

    Mental stress costs Australian businesses more than $10 billion each year, according to Safe Work Australia. This staggering figure includes time lost from low performance, absenteeism and compensation payments. Of course, for boards, managing the risk of psychological harm to their company’s employees is a complex task. How much responsibility should a company take? What about pre-existing conditions? Where do the boundaries between organisational and personal responsibility lie?

    Although there is a mountain of evidence that relentless work pressure and bullying lead to lower performance and not to better results, many workplaces have failed to heed the message. That’s human nature. Directors who have survived a lifetime of work stress wonder what the fuss is about; after all, they are okay. But expectations have changed. A study by TNS Social Research showed that 91 per cent of workers say it is important to be in a mentally-healthy workplace, but only 52 per cent believe their workplace fits that description.

    Neuroscientists, studying the impact of stress on the brain, have built a clear case for a new approach to leadership: one that involves a nuanced approach that adapts to the needs of individuals. Some staff, for example, will thrive on pressure, challenge, and being left to manage themselves. Others thrive on guidance, appreciation and close support. No one size fits all, in terms of mentally healthy leadership.

    However, in one respect we are all the same – working long hours does not lead to better performance. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, editor Sarah Green Carmichael notes a study of consultants that showed managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to work 80 hours a week.

    Yet the health consequences of long hours are clear: heavy drinking, lack of exercise, impaired sleep, depression, impaired memory and heart disease. Then there is absenteeism, turnover and compensation claims; the latter typically costing an Australian company $23,600 and resulting in 14.8 weeks away from work. By contrast, research by global accounting firm PwC shows that for every dollar spent on successfully implementing appropriate action to improve workplace mental health, there is an average $2.30 return in benefits to be gained by the organisation.

    The costs and benefits are clear. But what can be done? Fortunately, there has never been so much support for boards to mitigate these risks. The National Mental Health Commission has formed a Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, which provides excellent resources to help boards to instigate change. The website, created by the Alliance and beyondblue offers an online action plan for organisations ready to instigate change.

    Law firm King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), along with other top and mid-tier firms established a national wellbeing campaign, Resilience@Law, to help address mental health in the legal profession. The training program aims to recognise and respond to the mental health concerns of their staff. The result has been a change in culture, with lawyers making greater use of KWM’s Employee Assistance Provider and addressing mental health issues before they are “broken”.

    Every year, as part of a national strategy to help reduce suicide and the stigma associated with mental illness the national organisation, R U OK? uses September 14 to encourage all of us to ask the question: Are you okay? For boards, this question has additional importance, because if your organisation is not okay, you are breaking the law.

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