In recent years a range of different professional groupings in New Zealand have become proactive in supporting the mental health of their members.
Increasingly motivated by seemingly preventable suicides, and growing awareness of the common occurrence of depression, anxiety disorders and addictions, employment arenas as diverse as the New Zealand Army, professional rugby and cricket, the farming community and, of course, lawyers have started to ask what they can do help their professions.
The Law Society’s Practising Well initiative is a very positive example of the types of approach being developed.
With New Zealand’s world-leading Like Minds Like Mine programme, aimed at reducing stigma around mental illness, and public figures such as Sir John Kirwan sharing their experience of depression, the foundations have been well laid for a wider public response to mental health problems, including in the workplace.
So far the typical approach of professional groups has been to use an intranet style approach with:
- information on common mental health problems;
- where to get help;
- the importance of talking to others about the problem;
- stories of positive recovery experiences from their own members;
- and lifestyle tips to help relieve symptoms.
This has been fantastic progress and the 2012 New Zealand Health Survey shows a small decrease since 2006/7 of psychological distress in New Zealand men.
Prevalence of mental health problems do remain high and stress and psychological stress is being seen as a serious issue across the board in working environments.
To build on the good work being done to increase proactive and helpful responses to common mental health problems in initiatives such as Practising Well, it is timely to consider the two following questions:
- Why do some people develop mental health disorders in stressful environments while others don’t?
- What can be done to prevent, not just respond to, these mental health problems?
Why do some people develop mental health problems in stressful environments while others don’t?
It is often assumed that mental illness has its origins either in some stressful situation or traumatic event, or that it is an accident of a person’s biology, the result of an inherited trait or personality type.
While these two causes are valid to some degree, the biological influence, in the literature, has been shown to be weak, and independent of this variable some people seem to be better able to cope with very stressful life events or trauma and may even become more resilient as a result of them.
The more significant causal factor that is emerging from recent research is the psychological processes that people learn and habitually employ in their lives.
The conclusions from a very large and recent United Kingdom study1 indicates that people’s thinking styles, particularly a tendency to ruminate, self blame and negatively reason, have the biggest influence on whether common mental health problems such as depression develop.
Another study from the United States found that if people regularly respond negatively to seemingly minor daily events, this is related to mental illness 10 years later.2 The implication of this research is that common mental health problems can be effectively treated, but also prevented, if we get the right support to review our thinking habits.
To reduce the risk of mental illness, our thinking should not be overly negative and repetitive, and not excessively individualistic (so that we feel completely alone and isolated with our problems). Indeed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps people reframe their thoughts and interpretations, is an effective evidence-based psychological therapy for depression and anxiety problems.
Due to our current more reactive thinking to mental health problems, CBT is usually used after a problem is experienced.
Prevention in the workplace
Many organisations now take a proactive approach to encouraging physically positive healthy behaviour, aimed at general benefits but also as a way to promote preventative strategies. Some examples include:
- giving out pedometers;
- team sport events;
- healthier food for corporate meetings;
- standing desks;
- flu jabs; and
- showers for people biking to work.
A physically healthy worker is a more productive and happy worker who takes fewer sick days. They will also live longer, and be less likely to suffer chronic and debilitating diseases.
What about being proactive with psychological health in a similar way?
This has been slower to catch on, but there are many approaches from the rapidly growing well-being science that can lead to mental health benefits.
A psychologically healthy professional is one who:
- can cope effectively with increasingly emotionally demanding workplaces;
- knows the limits of their psychological capacity;
- knows they need and has social support networks to draw on; and
- responds to psychological setbacks as challenges.
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to optimising our mental wellbeing.
There is plenty of good evidence from social psychology and behavioural economics about how we tend to think as humans, based on our adaptations to or early dangerous hunter gatherer environments, as opposed how we now need to think in the vastly different modern world. Essentially we need a number of approaches to help us be aware of our emotional responses and thinking habits and to ensure we are not unrealistically negative, or unreasonable on ourselves.
What we need from workplaces of the future are universal, engaging and regular ways of reinforcing the benefits of psychologically healthy habits and rituals that allow us to survive and thrive within the context of challenging professional work.
This includes understanding that the psychological system of the mind has limits, and needs to be looked after, just like the biological system of the physical body. And, of course, these two systems are highly connected with each other too. Previous articles in LawTalk have outlined some of the evidence-based ways to proactively strengthen our psychological wellbeing. (There have been quite a number of these, addressing issues such as “mindfulness”, for example, particularly over the last 12 months).
One place to start on the preventative journey is to spread the concept that mental health is an asset in the workplace, rather than a deficit.
There is a huge body of evidence that shows the benefits of positive mental health (more than just the absence of illness) to productivity, reduced sick leave and better physical health – as well as, of course, in reducing risk of mental illness.
This idea can be socialised through industry and organisational intranet conversations and information, well-being weeks, social events and general information sharing.
Talking about mental health in the positive is a relevant topic for all employees, and can potentially reduce the stigma that mental health currently still has.
Until we can deal in a more proactive and preventative way with the human psychological system in modern life and working relationships, it is likely we will continue to see serious mental health problems continue at similar rates as those today.
Hugh Norriss is the Director of Policy and Development at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and also the Director of Working Well. Working Well is the Mental Health Foundation’s programme to support workplaces to be mentally healthy. Before joining the Mental Health Foundation in 2009, he has held a range of leadership positions in mental health services, including Group Manager of Mental Health Services and Mental Health Planning and Funding Manager at Capital Coast Health 2005-2009 and Chief Executive of Wellink Trust, 1997-2005. Having worked in mental health services for 12 years, Mr Norriss joined the Mental Health Foundation to pursue public policy and information work in advocating for better ways to protect and promote the mental health of all New Zealanders, including in the workplace.
- Kinderman, P., Schwannauer, M., Pontin, E., Tai, S., & Laks, J. (October 16, 2013). Psychological Processes Mediate the Impact of Familial Risk, Social Circumstances and Life Events on Mental Health. Plos One, 8, 10.)
- Charles, S. T., Piazza, J. R., Mogle, J., Sliwinski, M. J., & Almeida, D. M. (January 01, 2013). The wear and tear of daily stressors on mental health. Psychological Science, 24, 5, 733-41.