New Zealand Law Society - Mental health in the workplace

Mental health in the workplace

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Less a problem to be solved, more an experience to be understood

It has been good to see lawyers becoming more aware of their mental health at work. This series is a positive example of this, along with the Law Society’s Practising Well and a number of taskforces internationally on lawyer mental health. These initiatives reflect increasing workplace and societal understanding of mental health.

Some trends to be aware of include:

  • Many industries and professions are becoming more concerned about mental health problems in their midst. In New Zealand, not only lawyers, but farmers, defence forces, retail chains, government departments, the construction industry and professional rugby have set up programmes to respond to this issue. Many of these groups have, in the past, believed themselves to be tough and self-reliant, and now see the downside of shunning human vulnerability and not being more open about emotional setbacks and diversity of human experience.
  • Harmful workplace stress is on the increase. It is well researched that harmful stress often contributes to mental illnesses involving depression, anxiety, and addictions.
  • In the wider New Zealand adult population, rates of psychological distress are increasing as measured by the New Zealand Health Survey. The highest rates are in young adults, especially young women, in socially deprived groups, and people who feel isolated. The recent government review of mental health services outlines the overwhelming increase in demand on mental health services.
  • The trends in worsening psychological health are shared across post-industrial societies in Europe, North America and Australasia. Ironically, these are countries that are wealthier, physically safer, more socially progressive and technologically advanced than ever before.
  • The OECD now sees mental health in the workplace as a major priority to tackle in labour market and social policies.

Lawyers, along with other professional groups and industries, are facing specific workplace mental health challenges including:

  • High numbers of people coming to work (estimated to be one in six) who would meet the threshold to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or addiction problems.
  • Increasing demands for workplaces to be more open in responding to harmful stress, and psychological distress.
  • Less acceptance of hard driving, macho, and ‘harden up’ work cultures.
  • Much higher rates of mental illness in younger people entering the workforce.
  • Increased risks in harmful workplace stress due to constant change, increasing complexity, competition and uncertainty.
  • Increased societal stress and anxiety that people bring to work with them. This is driven by societal trends such as increasing loneliness, reduced sleep, social media use, 24-hour negative news cycles and greater social complexity.
  • Health and Safety legislation which now requires workplaces to eliminate, reduce or manage psychological harms.

This list could feel pessimistic and overwhelming. However, a recent analysis from Deloitte found that organisations that respond and invest wisely in mental health can get a four-fold return on investment and build a reputation as a great place to work. The investment requires best practice training and systemic approaches to organisational and attitudinal change.

Limiting our conversations to illness is a missed opportunity

Often, we think of mental health as being just about mental health problems, illness or distress. Mental health, however, is a positive quality, our best resource for daily living, as enshrined in the World Health Organisation’s definition of mental health (“a state of wellbeing 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”).

Hugh Norriss
Hugh Norriss

Mental health just means the ‘health of the mind’, and our minds are our greatest asset in life. Unlike manual industries that dominated workplaces in the past, most organisations today utilise sharp brains/minds as the basis for creating their products. Successful legal organisations, especially, thrive on clear thinking, mental stamina and emotional intelligence. Limiting our understanding and conversations about mental health to just the illness and problems of individuals is a missed opportunity. Seeing mental health as a resource rather than a liability can increase organisational wellbeing and resilience and productivity.

Even when people struggle with periods of mental illness and distress, they often come through the experience a stronger, more empathetic and wiser person when they get the right support.

Our culture has taught us that ‘mental health’ is a pathology, a personal liability and related to an individual’s faulty coping skills or a faulty brain. Up-to-date research debunks these ideas, showing that mental health is not only a dynamic quality involving the whole range of human experiences, it is also hugely affected by our social and physical environments, just like our physical health.

Why ‘practical tips’ are not enough

Awareness-raising and practical tips can be a good start, but the real work begins when organisations start dealing systematically, thoughtfully, and with long-term commitment to the relevant behaviour changes, psychological dynamics, policies and measurements needed for a mentally healthy organisation.

If we continue to treat mental health problems reactively and only one person at time, it will be like trying to drain the ocean with a sieve.

Having said that, there is one person you can start with: and that is you. Reflection around your own mental struggles and vulnerabilities and questioning if you are fully satisfied with your current overall mental state brings you into a wider conversation about how we can all get better in this area.

A systemic, proactive and preventative response is needed

The systemic issues relating to the problems and opportunities of mental health can be approached by taking steps to integrate the following three domains of activity into the daily life of the business.

Some examples from each domain include:

Domain 1: Support those with ongoing mental health problems

Because mental illnesses are common in any workplace, a hands-off approach is not an option. A proportion of people coming to work will have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. If they’re getting support or treatment, there is likely to be minimal impact on their work. Some will have periods of relapse where they need extra support. Others will develop a mental illness after they have joined an organisation and there could be a period of disruption, similar to someone who develops a physical health problem or injury.

Venn diagram

Reasonable expectations that people can have of their organisation in terms of mental health competencies include:

  • An environment of trust, encouragement and empathy where people can talk about mental health problems without fear of negative judgement.
  • Zero tolerance for stigma and discrimination related to mental illness or any psychological vulnerability.
  • Managers that can deal competently with sick leave, return to work and workplace adaptations and accommodations both for physical and mental illness.
  • Comprehensive and visible information on where to get help including employee assistance programmes.
  • Overall employee awareness training on mental health and maintaining mental wellbeing.

These areas should be included in the organisational training calendar and managers’ personal development plans.

Domain 2: Create and maintain a mentally healthy culture

Work is inherently mentally healthy as it provides meaning, status, routine, social connection and social and material support. Poorly-managed workplaces can, however, damage mental health through excessive job strain, uncertainty, poor procedural justice and bullying. This is a different challenge to domain 1, because here the workplace potentially creates or contributes to mental illness, injury or distress.

Psychological injury is a developing area of health and safety as work is now largely based around mental processes rather than manual ones. We can expect to see a much stronger focus in this area from Worksafe New Zealand in the future. To avoid health and safety penalties, organisations can take the proactive approach by systematically, deliberately and transparently creating a healthy culture, and collecting appropriate metrics about how the workplace is affecting people’s physical and mental health.

Domain 3: Learn and promote psychological wellbeing

From the wellbeing science we know that:

  • Mental wellbeing is a skill that can be learned. It can be thought of as mental fitness, developed through training, insight and habits.
  • Mental wellbeing is not just the absence of mental illness, it has its own distinct qualities such as meaning and purpose in life, vitality, optimism, feelings of accomplishment, healthy social engagement and contribution.
  • Mental wellbeing can act as a preventative to mental illness and mental distress.
  • Mental wellbeing behaviours boost neurochemicals in the brain that help us feel calm, pro-social, creative and satisfied.
Sarah Taylor
Sarah Taylor

Corporate teams like lawyers who rely on cognitive and emotional strength to be successful can gain value from investing in mental wellbeing skills to ensure their business success and reduce the risks of psychological harms.

Most workplaces have their wellbeing advocates. These are people who will enthusiastically organise activities and social events around wellbeing and promote information on healthy living. As a starting point, support these people in your organisation and allow the idea of mental fitness to become contagious.

Jogging and cycling were once fringe practices. In the mental space, yoga, mindfulness and meditation are now becoming mainstream and are enthusiastically endorsed by highly respected institutions such as Harvard Medical School as being good for mental health. Practices like these can be encouraged in your workplace with sponsored events at lunchtime or before or after work. Organisations are also increasingly turning to training in cognitive reappraisal techniques which help us to better manage the interplay of thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

The three domains together

The three domains are not independent. Instead they overlap because we cannot neatly divide up different aspects of human experience. If you neglect one of these domains, it will impact negatively on the two. For instance, if you have an unhealthy work culture (domain 2), you will be undermining efforts to support individuals who are struggling (domain 1), and promoting wellbeing events (domain 3) will make people cynical and angry as it will look like you are papering over deeply harmful problems in the culture.

Don’t just have an ad-hoc approach to mental health

Mental health in a legal organisation, like in any workplace, is a complex issue that spans from the depths of your people’s vulnerabilities through to your business’s greatest asset, which is an optimally healthy mind that thinks effectively on behalf of your clients. It is worth prioritising your most valuable asset, healthy minds, with a strategic approach. Mental health in the workplace also reflects highly complex changes in society relating to identity, meaning, lifestyle changes, technology and information.

Of course, workplaces are not fully responsible for their employees’ health, happiness and mental health but they do have a significant role to play.

Lawyers have a reputation for being excellent problem solvers and communicators, having analytical minds and being social leaders. I’m hopeful the legal profession will bring these positive traits into wider critiques and thought leadership relating to mental health in legal firms, workplaces in general, and wider society.

For further information on steps to building a mentally healthy organisation, please contact Sarah Taylor at the email address below.

Hugh Norriss is an independent workplace wellbeing programme consultant with over 20 years’ senior management experience in the delivery and development of mental health services and mental wellbeing programmes.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Business Development at LOD NZ, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.

If you’d like to contribute to an article in this series, please contact Sarah:

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